One author has shaped my cranium more than any other, and that’s a mixed blessing. Daniel Pinkwater is author and sometimes illustrator of over 100 (and counting) books. He is also an occasional commentator on National Public Radio‘s All Thing Considered and appears regularly on Weekend Edition Saturday, where he reviews kids’ books.
My first exposure to his work was via a children’s television program which read the first few chapters of Lizard Music, the story of a boy left home alone while his parents vacation and his sister roadtrips. He stays up late watching his favorite programs, then awakens to a pirate broadcast of intelligent lizards. Intrigued, he seeks out the source of the broadcast with the help of a homeless street performer, the Chicken Man.
I was hooked. The masterful means Pinkwater employed to make the bizarre adventure an engaging read was wholly new, and remains so. I never felt spoon-fed or pandered-to. Every detail was related matter-of-factly. And the protagonists were neither the average yet repressed ilk of young adult fiction nor the Encyclopedia Brown wünderkinds of middle readers. Pinkwater’s characters have rumpled shirts, acne, braces and are often pudgy outcasts. They’re also risk-takers, befriend dangerous strangers and sneak out of the house late at night.
I kept returning to the children’s section for more Pinkwater. I befriended the children’s librarian, and found I was returning as much to visit her as to get new book recommendations. By age 16, I was publishing my own zines and comics and meeting dangerous strangers through the mail and visiting the children’s librarian at her home because she was my first real crush.
In retrospect, I liken the effect of reading Pinkwater (I’ve read 80 of his books and own 30) to the sense of wonder boys must have felt reading Huckleberry Finn. Surely it inspired interracial kinship and raft rides? The way Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars inspired me to court a children’s librarian 20 years my senior? Whatever; reading Daniel Pinkwater changed my life. Usually for the better.