After the Harry Potter series ended, I was looking around for books with a similar feel to them. My aunt was a Reader's Assistant at the Boulder Public Library at the time, and she recommended "the Lemony Snicket" books, which sounded like a joke, but since she's rarely wrong, I went out and bought Book the First, The Bad Beginning. It was in the Children's section, and it was short. I will take a moment here to congratulate the author and everyone else involved in the design of the book for it's lovely, quality bindings with ripped-edge pages and sturdy board-and-cloth construction. It's nice to see any book - much less a childrens' book - bound really, truly well.
I waited until now to write about these because none of the books previously have topped the 200 page requirement (plus the pages are small, so it really would have felt like cheating), but I've read through book seven at this point and I cannot recommend the series heartily enough. I particularly like the tone of the books, which is lighthearted but still doesn't pull any punches for younger readers. The stories follow the tragic misfortunes of a trio of orphans and do not shy away from admitting that yeah, it's really sad that bad things happen to nice people and that there are bad people in the world. Moreover, Snicket does not dumb down the vocabulary for kids. I always think this is the best policy - baby talk is quite frankly a disservice to children, as they need adult speech to develop their own language patterns and vocabulary; you don't need to be quoting Plato to two year olds, but you don't need to be using non-verbal babble with them either - and Snicket has a good handle on it. When he wants to use a big word, he goes for it and explains it in a way that gives context for it, which I think makes the meaning clearer than can a dictionary definition.
The Baudelaire orphans' parents died in a house fire while they were at the nearby beach, and since then, they have been in the care of an inept banker named Mr. Poe. (I'm sure that by now I need not mention that these books are rife with literary references.) The orphans will come into a vast fortune once they come of age, but until then, Mr. Poe is tasked with finding them a place to stay. In The Bad Beginning, they are placed with their odious uncle, Count Olaf, who after putting the children to work in his disgusting house attempts to trick the oldest child, Violet, into marrying him and thus getting around the age requirement for the inheritance. Through the combined wit of Violet (an inventor), Klaus (an avid reader) and Sunny (a baby who is fond of biting things), the three Baudelaires escape. Unfortunately, they are escaping to a string of similarly disastrous placements that Mr. Poe comes up with, and are chased at every turn by Count Olaf, who disguises himself as a variety of characters to get near the orphans and their incompetent guardians.
Lemony Snicket is the narrator, and what gets really interesting is the way the Baudelaire children's story begins to blend into Snicket's own. At this point in the stories, it's beginning to be clear that Snicket is more than a guardian and transmittor of the kids' story and in fact is involved himself. This adds a wonderful amount of depth to the tale, and is way more interesting than many kids' books.
I have read through book seven and anxiously await the arrival of book eight. I think any parent should consider these, not only for their kids but for themselves, and even if you're kidless, you'll enjoy the hell out of these. They're wonderful, inventive books with great imagery, terrific characters and unique depth. Each book comes in a nice little compact size, too, so it's perfect for trips or the beach or rides into work on the train. Do yourself a favor and pick a bunch of them up, or even better, buy the boxed set. It's only 95 bucks (each book costs about $11 anyway, and there are 13 of them, so it's pretty much highway robbery to get the box set), and I guarantee you'll want to rip through the whole series.