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Daniel Pinkwater: Insight to the Author

Children's author, Daniel Pinkwater, is often asked where he gets ideas for his stories. To this he responds, "Wrong question. You should ask How do you develop ideas?" (FAQ 2) The reason for his answer is that millions of ideas are running through our heads every second. Getting ideas is just part of existence. The real concern is deciding which ideas are good and which are bad, then taking the good ones and building on them. (Chicago) Like most writers of fiction, Pinkwater's ideas are often pulled straight from his own life. The places he's been, the people he's met, his personality and interests are all involved in his books. Even a simple theme that is relevant to him can be the jumping-off point for an exceptional story. After all, how believably can you write about something that you have never experienced? Fiction is so much more than just entertaining stories; it is a look at the person writing the stories.

To this date Pinkwater has published over seventy books, mostly for children, and continues to write several new books every year. He has done regular commentaries on Nation Public Radio's All Things Considered for years and recently got his own show for children on NPR called "Chinwag Theater." He has contributed to magazines such as Smithsonian and The New Yorker, and has been dubbed "one of America's very best humorists," by the Washington Post. (Chicago)

Throughout his career he has lived in Hoboken, NJ and Long Island, and is now living in Hyde Park, New York. His wife Jill Miriam is also a writer. Some titles of hers include Buffalo Brenda and The Disappearance of Sister Perfect. Her style shows a quirkiness similar to Daniel's but from more of a female perspective. She and Daniel, both notorious animal lovers, have shared their home with many cats, dogs and horses over the years. They currently have several dogs including old Jacques, an Akita/shepherd mix.

Pinkwater attended St. Leon's College in Chicago with no plans to become a writer, studying art instead. During the summer months, he apprenticed to local sculptors. After finishing college, he relocated to Hoboken to begin his art career. He was unsuccessful as an artist and "sort of fell upon" writing children's books after an editor he met at a party suggested he try it. (Chicago passim) The first book he wrote was published in 1970. Pinkwater's work flourished from that point, earning him worldwide recognition and great favor with the kids who read and loved his books.

The main characters that are children in Pinkwater's books are usually a reflection of his own childhood. Daniel describes how he writes children's books this way:

I imagine a child. That child is me. I can reconstruct and vividly remember portions of my own childhood. I can see, taste, smell, and hear them. Then what I do is, not write a book about that kid or about his world, but I start to think of a book that would have pleased him. (Wann 2)

In the books where a physical description of the main character is given, he is usually fat or portly in the least. Many of them also wear glasses like Daniel. "I was always a chunky kid," He says. "Early photos of me show not a particularly rotund little boy, but a substantial one… And then, about the time I was in grade school, I was starting to bulk up." (Wann 1)

In Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, the main character, Leonard Neeble, describes himself: "I am a short, portly kid, and I wear glasses." Appearance causes a problem for Neeble since the kids at his new school judge each other based on looks, and are all tall and blond with suntans. (Mendelsohn 1) Pinkwater, himself, moved from Chicago to Los Angeles during his adolescence and this scenario might have been what he encountered.

Pinkwater's family was 'highly dysfunctional' as he grew up and he 'soon learned to ignore them.' (Wann 1) His parents tried too hard to be a normal, modern American family, and had some strange ideas about what that meant. The characters in his books are very independent and have a detached relationship with their family members, sometimes even defying them for the challenge it presented. Examples of this are seen in Borgel when main character, Melvin, describes his siblings as "boring" and leaves home with his uncle to escape the monotony of his home life. In The Magic Moscow, Norman Bleistift lives in the basement of his parents' house, and works full-time at a delicatessen during the summer, against their wishes. The Snarkout Boys, Walter and his best friend Winston Bongo, sneak out of their homes in the middle of the night to see the late movie at the Snark Theater downtown.

The Snarkout boys participated in one of Pinkwater's favorite hobbies as well as mimicking his family life. Pinkwater enjoyed riding the bus and walking all over the city looking for interesting places. He frequented small hole-in-the-wall establishments like cafes, comic shops, used bookstores and parks. On these excursions, he encountered Fred's Red-Hots with bright-red lethal hot links (Fish 6), a city park with an open mike every night for whoever wanted to speak (Fish 49), and the Clark Theater, which showed a double bill every night for fifty cents (Fish 54). Walter and Winston visited all of these specifically in the book with only the names changed (Snarkout 331, 344, 345). Alan Mendelsohn shared Pinkwater's affinity for comic books (Mendelsohn 51); Victor from Lizard Music (Lizard 8), his love for model airplanes; and the Dada Ducks from Young Adults, his interest in various art movements (Adults 8).

Not only do Pinkwater's character comes from himself but also from other people and animals. He uses settings and events from reality as well. In Chicago Days/Hoboken Nights, he describes a situation in which a weird new kid at his school named Arnold Marmelstein went around telling the other kids at school that he was, in fact, a Martian. The following day a riot broke loose as to whether or not Arnold was really a Martian with many kids beating each other up in the dispute (Chicago 116). Alan Mendelsohn's character was not only based on Arnold but the riot was included, Arnold's interesting way of dress, even the school that Leonard and Alan attended followed Daniel's description of the incident very closely (Mendelsohn 36).

In Fish Whistle, Pinkwater gives a vivid description of an African safari taken with a friend of his (Fish 36). Many of the details provided in this account are closely followed in his novel, The Worms of Kukumlima. Some of these included descriptions of the giraffes running along side the runway at the airport, a life-threatening experience with a spitting cobra, and Hassan, the courageous Pakistani tour guide (Kukumlima passim).

Jolly Roger: A Dog of Hoboken is based on the life of a real dog that lived on the boat dock in Hoboken, New Jersey while Daniel was living there. Jolly Roger, part Chow Chow and part Alaskan Husky, arrived in Hoboken on a ship from Alaska. The only human he allowed to pet him was a poor kid that worked in a parking garage for an abusive supervisor. Jolly Roger soon became king of the waterfront and had the respect of all the other dock dogs. He escaped the dog pound several times, and when the dogcatcher chased him, would run the wrong way up a one-way street and get away (Roger 28). Some of the stories in Jolly Roger are made up, but most of the book follows the Chicago Days/Hoboken Nights account with perfect accuracy (Chicago 96).

One of the most often used and recognized characters in Pinkwater's books is the Chicken Man. The Chicken Man is a real person who wanders the streets of New York City with a chicken under his hat. He wears on a string around his neck several toys like a little telephone and little bottles of beer. When he feels so inclined, the Chicken Man will bring the chicken out and have her do tricks like squawking into the little telephone and drinking the little bottles of beer. The Chicken Man never accepts money for the performances but seems to enjoy doing them for the sake of art (Fish 51). He has shown up in many of Pinkwater's books as both major and minor characters including Lizard Music and The Snarkout Boys and The Avocado of Death.

Pinkwater also includes parodies of more familiar things from everyday life. The main character in The Last Guru invests his winnings from the horserace to stock in an unsuccessful fast food chain called MacTavishes that sells pickle patties on a bun called Zenburgers (Guru 488). Gradually MacTavishes rose to the top with the popularity of its new advertising character, Hodie MacBodie, a clown (better known as Ronald McDonald) and the introduction of the Big Zen (better known as the Big Mac).

Sometimes the real life connections are less obvious at first glance. These connections are in the theme, or underlying message of the book. One of Daniel's most recurrent themes is self-reliance. In Mush: A Dog from Space, Kelly and her parents are in disagreement as to whether or not she needs a baby-sitter after school. Kelly feels she can take care of herself but her parents are afraid to leave her alone in the house. She also wants to get a dog as well but her parents do not want a dog messing up the house. Kelly eventually gets her way when they decide to let her have a dog who is clean and also will be able to protect her when she's home alone (Mush passim).

In Lizard Music, Victor is left home alone when his parents go on vacation and his creepy older sister runs off on an impromptu camping trip with her hippie friends. Victor is not worried since his parents left him plenty of money and TV dinners, and actually feels safer without his sister there. On his own, Victor is able to stay up late, order anchovies on his pizza, leave his model airplanes out while he is working on them and take the bus into the nearby city of Hogboro every day. Victor is not afraid of being left alone and learns to appreciate the freedom this brings (Lizard passim).

Pinkwater's father was self-employed throughout his childhood, running various family businesses out of their basement (Chicago 26). As someone who lived with the same situation growing up, I can presume that Daniel did not get much privacy or freedom with his parents being home all day. By writing Lizard Music, Mush and others in which the characters have jobs, skip school, leave home and sneak out of the house at night, Daniel realized a childhood dream of independence that he never had when he was young. I was able to realize that dream in reading them as well.

Another book was written after an acquaintance of his lost weight by eating nothing but bagels. The plan backfired and he gained all of the weight back when eventually he could no longer stand the mere sight or idea of a bagel (Chicago 160). From this experience came The Frankenbagel Monster, a story in which mad scientist, Harold Frankenbagel, builds a giant robotic bagel that goes haywire and terrorizes the city (Frankenbagel 7). The giant bagel is finally stopped when Professor Von Sweeney, expert on strange subjects comes to the rescue and causes the bagel to go stale by planning to eat it for breakfast. "Bagels always go stale before you're ready to eat them-every one knows that." he said in explanation as to how he knew his plan would work (18). At the end of the book, Daniel himself, addresses his readers:

"I wish to address a serious word to my readers. Bagels can be an enormous power of good or evil. They can be used foolishly or wisely. It is up to us to decide how we will use them: to make a better world or to destroy civilization." (Back cover)

Fantasy is such an important part of childhood. How many of us did not have a favorite book as a child that had the power of whisking us away to another time and place where everything was just as it should be? How many did not identify with the main character and wish we were there in the story as well? Every child needs to fulfill things missing in his life whether vicariously or through imagining. Daniel wrote not only for the child in himself but for every child who ever wanted to escape from the everyday drudgery of a boring life. Daniel serves a purpose in society. His books are not just entertaining. They are fuel for an imagination that wants and needs to grow.

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