Daniel Handler is a force to be reckoned with in the world of children’s literature. He’s a beloved and best-selling author of both middle grade and picture books, but don’t be surprised if you don’t recognize his name: He’s best known for the Series of Unfortunate Events, written under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket. For his latest book, Why We Broke Up, an illustrated novel for teens, Handler teamed up with illustrator Maira Kalman to create an intoxicating, melancholy meditation on love. This tale of romance gone sour has won starred reviews, many accolades and now a Printz Honor from the American Library Association.
Handler graciously answered a few questions about how he wrote Why We Broke Up, though he prefers to remain mum on the subject of his own worst breakup.
We know why Minerva and Ed broke up, but why did they ever get together? They're such different people; did they ever stand a chance?
A chance of what? Nothing lasts forever, even in high school.
Writing from Min's perspective, you hit on a lot of very true ideas about being a teenage girl in love and the places that can lead. As a non-teenage male, how did it feel to wear that particular hat?
Intimidating. Young women are among the grooviest and most powerful creatures on the planet, and in my experience they only lend hats to one another.
What do you think Ed's reaction to receiving Min's letter and the box might be?
Outwardly, a scowl and a shrug. Inwardly, everything Min hopes for.
Min is obsessed with old movies, constantly comparing scenes from her life with scenes in the movies she loves, which are all made up. How did you decide to use film in this way, and why did you use made-up films instead of existing classics?
If I say, I’m having a day like The World Of Henry Orient (a real film), you might think I mean a magical, youthful one, or an insufferable one, or you won’t know what I’m talking about. But if I say that my day reminds me of the closing scene of Uptown Scoundrels, when Gladys Finn throws a drink in her ex-husband’s face and then puts out her cigarette in his lapel, which bursts into flames as she wraps her ermine stole around her throat and disappears into the starry night, then we all know what we’re talking about.
Young women are among the grooviest and most powerful creatures on the planet, and in my experience they only lend hats to one another.
How did you come to collaborate with Maira Kalman? Her paintings really enrich the story, and made me think there should be picture books of some kind for readers of every age. Would you do something similar again?
I came to collaborate with Maira by a) being an enormous fan of her work; b) managing to acquire an introduction; c) slowly cultivating her friendship and lulling her into an unsuspecting state; d) taking her to lunch at a restaurant so delicious anyone would agree to anything. Why We Broke Up is our second collaboration, following the picture book 13 Words, and we have other plans afoot.
You created a somewhat unusual website to promote the book: the Why We Broke Up Project, where you ask readers to submit their own terrible breakup stories. But your own worst breakup story is conspicuously missing. Why?
Well-founded fear of retaliation.
You've written for adults, young adults and (as Lemony Snicket) younger children as well. What are the differences, if any, between these processes?
None whatsoever. I just try to tell an interesting story, interestingly.
What's next for you?
A new Snicket series begins this fall, so you’ve been warned.
Read a review of Why We Broke Up.