On Friday, June 2nd, 2017, at the publishing trade show BookExpo America, being held in New York City, alongside the public-facing event BookCon over the weekend, Neil Patrick Harris took the stage to talk about Netflix’s series Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
He was joined by author Chris Harris and author Lemony Snicket aka Daniel Handler. All three have books coming out in the Fall with Little Brown, books for young readers, they said, to applause. They all also have personal connections, as Neil Patrick Harris has acted in the role of Count Olaf in Handler’s Netflix series. Chris Harris described the show as “beautiful”, “magnificent” to and to be watched.
Snicket agreed that folks should just turn it on and let it run for ratings, to laughs. Neil Patrick Harris said they are currently filming Season 2 of the show and it’s the hardest acting he’s ever done to be part of the “fantastical world” of the show. Trying to adapt the books in a medium that’s also “more musical” with tons of “prosthetic nonsense” is challenging. It takes him three hours to get into makeup each morning, and there are layers of disguise for Count Olaf, too. Since Olaf is a terrible actor, that’s a hard choice in how to play those parts.
Chris Harris asked Handler how it’s been seeing NPH take on that role, and Handler said that he saw NPH playing a musical number in a satirical role and thought he seemed perfect for the part. He says he knows the show is successful when parents tell him “My kids love it, except my youngest, who was really scared”. That’s the point of balance in playing for more than one group.
NPH commented that even Sesame Street has different levels for engagement depending on the age group of those watching, and this Netflix show challenges kids on many levels, including vocabulary, and that’s satisfying.
Handler said that so much of children’s literature is read out loud by adults, and that means you have to create something to operate “in that space”. It’s awful when a child likes a “terrible book” and a parent has to “read it over and over again” which is “hell on earth”, he said, to audience laughter. “No one deserves that”, he added, to more laughter.
Chris Harris pointed out that in these books, not everything is perfect or fair, and Handler doesn’t tie things up “in a bow” simply because young kids are reading. Handler said that it depends on personality, too, since you can “reach 90 and never hit irony”.
NPH said he has twin 6 and a half year old sons, but he’s aiming toward 8 year olds in the book he’s been writing, The Magic Misfits. He wants it to be complex enough but still readable by that age group, he said. He’s anticipating they’ll be able to read it when they reach that age, and tries to include adventure but also educative aspects, including how to learn a magical trick. He used to be President of the Academy of Magic in LA, so he had fun going back to old time magic trick handbooks in the 50’s and 60’s and used those old methods as instructional.
NPH also uses it to explain ideas behind what they are reading in the book. A narrator will teach a trick that’s similar to the magical events happening in the book that might explain the principles behind the trick without totally giving the mode of the trick away.
Handler commented on the fact that all fiction is “magic” and a “trick”, since you are swept away, then blink back into normality, or feel worried about a character, and then realize they are not actually your friend. And there’s something magical in that you “never love a book the way you do when you’re 10”. Kids often ask him if the Baudelaire children are “real”, and Handler thinks they know the kids aren’t, but at the same time, they want to exist in this “space” and are hoping he’ll say “yes”.
Asked how he plotted out the series, Handler said he’d have an outline of where he was going, like a police procedural, but he’d never be sure how he was going to get there, and that would often be very divergent.
Handler says it’s been a “delight” to figure out the TV version of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Like many writers, he’s in despair at going back over books he wrote a long time ago, and he had to read the books again to do the show. So the first thing he did was try to decide what was essential or important since TV folks are often suggesting big changes otherwise. However, he doesn’t feel like he’s having to fix or change it now. The text is fixed—you can go find it on a bookstore shelf—so now the question is how to make the new format work.
Handler has a new picture book coming out that addresses bad moods and was inspired by how quickly kids’ moods change, The Bad Mood and the Stick. The book has art by Matthew Forsythe. The theme of the book is that you never know what’s going to happen, and since Handler thinks children find the world bewildering, he addresses that. He thinks the most successful stories address how bewildering the world is, rather than providing structure, as many people believe. Fairy tales have crazy premises, and so does life for kids.
Chris Harris’s book is called I’m Just No Good At Rhyming and Other Nonsense For Mischievous Kids And Immature Grown-Ups, illustrated by Lane Smith. And the rhymes are often unpredictable and surprising. There’s scanning that makes you predict a rhyme that leads to a total “non-rhyme” which points out how rhyme works for kids.
The panelists fell into a discussion of how special libraries are in solving mysteries and the magic of “browsing”, and that’s not something you can do very well with a digital filter.
Libraries and bookstores have the tactile elements that are appealing, NPH said, but he’ll go up to the new fiction or biography section and just be “led to a book” just for no reason, but it ends up being a book that has a big impact on his life.
Handler said he’ll think, “I don’t need any more books”, but wandering about BookExpo, he finds all the things he didn’t know he wanted. That’s missing online.
NPH said that’s what’s magical about books, since he’s still a believer in the destiny of picking things out to read.
Handler said he experiences that when he gets the “dailies” from the Netflix show, and there’s the footage before the acting starts, and then the moment when it actually starts. He sees the “stop/start” aspect of magic in the footage. In a matter of seconds, you’re “full immersed” until someone says “cut” and the makeup gets fixed. It’s the same experience of being both on the subway and somehow in Tokyo because of what you’re reading.
It’s the “immersive” experience, Neil Patrick Harris said, and “books do that, full tilt”.