Daniel (Manus) Pinkwater (1941-)
Daniel Pinkwater is a prolific and popular author and illustrator who is celebrated as a particularly original, imaginative, and versatile contributor to literature for children and young adults. Renowned as a humorist and satirist, Pinkwater creates unusual books that characteristically point out the absurdity of reality, especially as related to contemporary society, while presenting young readers with both solid morals and plenty of laughs. The author is well known for his irreverent—some say anarchic—sensibility as well as for the droll wit he uses to skewer his targets. Often parodying genre fiction such as the detective story, the horror story, the adventure tale, and the science-fiction and young adult "problem" novel, Pinkwater typically features ordinary characters—often boys from Rochester, New York and Hoboken, New Jersey—who are placed in incredible, improbable situations. Their fantastic, often frenetic adventures lead these boys and girls to meet an array of odd creatures, both human and otherwise.
As a writer, Pinkwater fills his works with puns, nonsense words, one-liners, vivid imagery, and allusions to other books—some of them his—food, and popular culture. The author favors a deadpan tone that belies the outlandishness and wild humor of his stories. Pinkwater, who often includes surprise twists at the end of his stories, is often noted for his playfulness and exuberance as well as for the color and vitality of his characterizations.
As an artist, Pinkwater usually creates his illustrations in a deceptively simple, cartoonlike style—black and white drawings, often outlined with heavy lines and filled with bright colors—that is credited with complementing the energetic quality of his texts. In some of his more recent works, the artist uses colorful computer graphics. Most critics consider Pinkwater a masterful humorist whose stories are both inspired nonsense and accurate assessments of modern life, making the author especially popular with young people. Called "one of the star authors in the junior high stable" by Susan B. Madden in Voice of Youth Advocates, he has been, according to Peter Andrews of the New York Times Book Review, "rightly praised as a children's author who does not treat his audience as if they are little darlings."
Pinkwater's books are filled with references to his own life. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, he moved to Chicago when he was two years old. His family stayed there until Pinkwater was eight; after moving to Los Angeles, he came back to Chicago as a teenager. Writing in his collection of autobiographical essays titled Chicago Days, Hoboken Nights, he said, "I regarded Chicago, and that first large apartment, as home. I used to dream of living there, and frequently imagine it as the setting for works of fiction I write."
Pinkwater began writing and drawing at an early age; while living in Los Angeles, he found a store that sold art supplies, which fascinated him. He remembers writing one-page parodies in the fifth grade, enjoying grammar and logic exercises, and being inspired by Mad Magazine. In school, Pinkwater used to write funny notes to pass around the classroom and get his friends to laugh out loud, thus getting them into trouble. When he won a short-story contest and was given a subscription to National Geographic, he had a revelation: in an interview with Deborah Kovacs and James Preller for Meet the Authors and Illustrators, he stated, "That's how I first learned that you could get things by writing."
After graduating from high school, Pinkwater enrolled at Bard College in New York's Hudson River Valley, the area where he has continued to make his home. Initially, Pinkwater majored in English, philosophy, history, drama, and religion. However, when his father threatened to take him out of school, Pinkwater switched his major to art. When he went to his sculpture teacher, the instructor told Pinkwater that he might as well start getting some experience; consequently, the new student was made to teach all three sections of Sculpture 101. "This began," Pinkwater wrote, "my formal education as an artist."
In order to complete a research project, Pinkwater took a job as an intern in a sculpture foundry; Navin Diebold, a sculptor whom he met at the foundry, agreed to take him on as an apprentice. The author wrote, "I began as the pupil of Navin Diebold, the product of whose teaching I am, for better or worse, to this day." Pinkwater studied with Diebold—his pseudonym for David Nyvall—for three years. In his senior year at Bard, Pinkwater was given his own studio, where he worked on his senior project, a series of woodblock prints. At the end of their sessions, Nyvall told Pinkwater that he would never be a sculptor; instead, Nyvall told his student that he would be a writer.
After leaving Bard College, Pinkwater went to New York City to make his name as—despite his teacher's prediction—an artist. Before departing, he had three shows; the most successful one was in a saloon. He eventually moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, a picturesque town across from New York City that was filled with colorful characters. Hoboken, which was to become Pinkwater's home for the next dozen years, also became, as he noted in Chicago Days, Hoboken Nights, "my spiritual home for the rest of my life."
While working on his art, Pinkwater took extensive courses in art therapy, then worked as an art teacher in settlement houses and youth centers around New York City and New Jersey. He also traveled to Africa, joining an artists' cooperative in which he was the only member who was not from the Chagga tribe. In 1969 he married Jill Schutz, a teacher, writer, and artist who, as Jill Pinkwater, has created works of her own and has illustrated many of her husband's books.
While trying to sell his sculptures and prints, Pinkwater met a children's book editor who was looking for pictures to go with a book of African folktales she was editing. Learning that Pinkwater had recently returned from Africa, the editor suggested that he might like to try illustrating the story. After going to his studio, the editor went even further. She told Pinkwater that he should try writing and illustrating his own book. That effort, The Terrible Roar, was published in 1970 under the name Manus Pinkwater. The author remarked in the Something about the Author Autobiography Series, "I knew at once that I had found my calling."
Over the next several years Pinkwater published a number of well-received picture books, including Blue Moose. In 1976 he produced Lizard Music, a fantasy that is considered among his best works. First, eleven-year-old Victor sees a movie on late-night television about pods invading the earth; then, he sees pod people on a talk show as well as a lizard band on television playing incredibly beautiful music. After this, he starts seeing lizards everywhere. Next, Victor meets the Chicken Man, an old black man with a performing chicken named Claudia. The Chicken Man takes Victor to an invisible island inhabited by friendly lizards; here, Claudia hatches the egg that, according to legend, will lead the lizards in conquering the pods. A critic in Kirkus Reviews stated that Lizard Music is "that rarity, a children's fantasy that is truly contemporary in sensibility as well as setting. It's funny, [and] properly paranoid, shot through with bad puns and sweet absurdities."
With Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, a book published in 1979, Pinkwater created one of his most highly regarded titles. When Leonard Neeble moves from the city to the suburbs and begins attending Bat Masterson Junior High, he is snubbed by the snobbish faculty and students. Leonard finds friendship with Alan Mendelsohn, a fellow classmate who claims to be a Martian. Leonard and Alan discover the Bermuda Triangle Chili Parlor, where they meet Samuel Klugarsh, a used book dealer who has developed a cabalistic mind-control system, and Clarence Yojimbo, a Venusian who leads them to the existential plane of Waka-Waka. At the end of the novel, Alan returns to Mars and Leonard returns to school better able to make friends with other students who have been dismissed by the snobs. Ann S. Haskell of the New York Times Book Review called Alan Mendelsohn Pinkwater's "most ambitious book to date . . . that is, in spots, reminiscent of E. Nesbit, and everywhere vintage Pinkwater."
In 1982, Pinkwater created a send-up of young adult novels—called, appropriately enough, Young Adult Novel—that remains one of his most popular books. In the first four pages of this short novel, the author introduces Kevin Shapiro, a gay, alcoholic, thirteen year old who supports himself by stealing and selling drugs. Kevin's mother is locked away in a madhouse, his father is severely mentally impaired, and his sister is a prostitute. Readers of Young Adult Novel learn that Kevin is the hero of a story by the Wild Dada Ducks, a group of five high-school friends who have modeled themselves on the Dada movement of twentieth-century artists and writers. When the Ducks find that there really is a Kevin Shapiro at their school, they turn the boy—an antisocial nerd—into president of the student body. Shapiro retaliates by forming an alternate group, the Fanatical Praetorians, who provide a comeuppance for the Wild Dada Ducks. Susan B. Madden, a Voice of Youth Advocates reviewer, concluded that of all Pinkwater's books, this "particular wonderfully titled piece of nonsense is the best of all. . . . As is typical with Pinkwater, the wit pinpoints some very real adolescent concerns and feelings."
Uncle Melvin, a picture book published in 1989, is considered by critics as one of Pinkwater's most touching works. Uncle Melvin is mentally ill, spending his days with little Charles and his family and his nights in what he calls the "Looney Bin." Melvin sends messages to flying saucers and thinks that the president of the United States is a lizard. When he claims that he can start the rain and make rainbows, Melvin tests his family's limits. However, when he makes good on his claim, Charles becomes, in the words of Susan Perren in Quill & Quire, "an apostle for life." "With a few deft squiggles of the pen, a generous rainbow palette of colour, and the right number of well-chosen words," Perren added, "Daniel Pinkwater's Uncle Melvin gives the young an amusing and intriguing portrait of a family's 'crazy' relative and, indirectly, that family's capacity to hold that relative within its boundaries."
The Education of Robert Nifkin, a young adult novel published in 1998, is one of Pinkwater's directly autobiographical works. Ostensibly written by its title character as a college application essay, the book describes how Robert, a friendless, overweight boy living in Chicago during the late 1950s, learns to survive high school and begin to find himself. Horn Book critic Ann A. Flowers commented, "If the book weren't so funny, it could almost be a prescription for an interesting education.... This book will find its way to the hearts of individualists everywhere."
Turning his hand to series fiction in the "Werewolf Club" chapter books, Pinkwater recounts the adventures of a group of children at Watson Elementary School who just happen to be able to change themselves into werewolves. In the first book of the series, The Magic Pretzel, members of the Werewolf Club try to save their sponsor, caught in the wolf stage of shape-changing, by tracking down a Magic Pretzel which can lift the curse. Booklist critic Carolyn Phelan noted that if the premise of the series "seems a little wacky, the story's details are sometimes downright bonkers, and Pinkwater's fans wouldn't have it any other way."
In the club's second outing, The Lunchroom of Doom, one of the members is banned from the school cafeteria after having a food fight with himself. Thereafter the Werewolf Club takes its lunch downtown at Honest Tom's Tibetan-American Lunchroom, where the patrons make the Watson Elementary School students look tame by comparison. Betsy Barnett, writing in School Library Journal, called the work "another winning chapter book" that will appeal to young readers' "warped sense of humor."
In The Werewolf Club Meets Dorkula a vampire rears its ugly head in the form of Count Henry Dorkula, sucking the life out of all the fresh fruits and vegetables in town. "This is goofy, fast-paced, easy-reading," wrote Booklist's Todd Morning. A fourth offering in the series, The Werewolf Club Meets the Hound of the Basketballs, concerns the group's effort to locate an annoying dog that wanders the grounds of stately Basketball Hall.
An intelligent, extraterrestrial canine is the subject of Mush: A Dog from Space and Mush's Jazz Adventure. In Mush, young Kelly discovers the title character, a talking mushamute from the planet Growf-Woof-Woof, while walking through the woods. Though Kelly's parents forbid her from owning a pet, they quickly change their minds after the alien helps Kelly prepare a gourmet meal. In Mush's Jazz Adventure, Kelly learns how her friend crash-landed on Earth, formed a traveling band, and foiled a robbery. Mush's Jazz Adventure "is fast-paced and funny and full of total improbabilities," wrote Sally R. Dow in School Library Journal.
More off-beat humor is presented in Fat Camp Commandos, in which Ralph and Sylvia are shipped off to Camp Noo Yoo, run by their gym instructor, Dick Tator, to make them slim down. Soon, however, they skip camp and make it back to their hometown where they begin a campaign to fight prejudice against fat people. "This short chapter book is a good adventure with some laugh-out-loud moments," wrote Booklist reviewer Carolyn Phelan, "an unapologetic acceptance of fat."
Ralph and Sylvia return in Fat Camp Commandos Go West, wherein the pair help their friend Mavis unite two feuding factions—health freaks and ranchers—in the town of Horny Toad. According to School Library Journal contributor Marilyn Ackerman, "the story has an overall message of tolerance and acceptance."
Polar bears of a different stripe take center stage in Irving and Muktuk: Two Bad Bears, about a pair of critters running a muffin swindle during a New Year's Day celebration. Karen J. Tannenbaum, writing in School Library Journal, commended the book as "cleverly written" and "a great read-aloud."
A sequel, Bad Bears in the Big City, finds Irving and Muktuk sentenced to a zoo in New Jersey as punishment for their scam. It isn't long, however, before the duo escape and sneak into the muffin factory next door. "Pinkwater's many fans will enjoy the further adventures of these mischievous creatures," noted Donna Cardon in School Library Journal. In Bad Bears and a Bunny, Irving and Muktuk have a run-in with a temperamental rabbit.
In 1987, Pinkwater embarked on a new career as a radio commentator. Appearing on the National Public Radio programs All Things Considered and Car Talk, he has become a well-known figure among radio audiences. In addition, Pinkwater created and co-hosted Chinwag Theater, a program for young people, and reviewed books for Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon. His radio commentaries have been collected in the volumes Fish Whistle: Commentaries, Uncommentaries, and Vulgar Excesses and Chicago Days, Hoboken Nights, the second a collection of autobiographical essays. Although directed to adults, Chicago Days, Hoboken Nights is often enjoyed by young readers. The volume, which recounts Pinkwater's childhood through his becoming a writer, was described by School Library Journal contributor Judy McAloon as "great reading" by a "superb storyteller."
When asked by Marilyn Wann on the Fat!So? Web site about his approach to writing books for children, Pinkwater responded, "I imagine a child. That child is me. I can reconstruct and vividly remember portions of my own childhood. I can see, taste, smell, feel, and hear them. Then what I do is, not write about that kid or about his world, but start to think of a book that would have pleased him." Pinkwater once told Something about the Author, "I'm not literary. I'm a streetfighter and a subversive artist. I feel I'm in a different world from the arbitrators of what's good, the self-congratulatory types who are involved in literature for the 'betterment of children.' It is my intention to blow these people sky high, and I've done my very best in that direction. The readers are clear about what's synthetic and what's genuine and I'm honored by their choices."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 4, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 35, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Hogan, Walter, The Agony and the Eggplant, Scarecrow Press (Lanham, MD), 2001.
Landsberg, Michele, Reading for the Love of It, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1987.
Meet the Authors and Illustrators, Volume II, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1993.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 3, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Spirt, Diana L., "Appreciating Books: 'Lizard Music'": Introducing More Books: A Guide for the Middle Grades, Bowker (New York, NY), 1978.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Booklist, April 1, 1974, review of Magic Camera, p. 878; April 1, 1982, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Young Adult Novel, p. 1014; October 15, 1991, Donna Seaman, review of Chicago Days, Hoboken Nights, p. 399; June 1, 1998, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Education of Robert Nifkin, p. 1749; July, 1998, Kathleen Squires, review of Bongo Larry, pp. 1187-1888; September 1, 1998, p. 134; March 1, 1999, p. 1223; April 1, 1999, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Ice Cream Larry, p. 1422; May 15, 1999, p. 1714; July, 2000, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Magic Pretzel, p. 2030; April 15, 2001, Carolyn Phelan, review of Fat Camp Commandos, p. 1553; September 15, 2001, Connie Fletcher, review of Irving and Muktuk: Two Bad Bears, p. 233, and Todd Morning, review of The Werewolf Club Meets Dorkula, p. 223; November 1, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Uncle Boris in the Yukon and Other Shaggy Dog Stories, p. 456; June 1, 2002, Carolyn Phelan, review of Fat Camp Commandos Go West, p. 1724; September 15, 2003, Terry Glover, review of The Picture of Morty and Ray, p. 248; March 1, 2004, Todd Morning, review of Bad Bears in the Big City, p. 1198.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1979, Zena Sutherland, review of Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, p. 54; November, 1989, Robert Strang, Uncle Melvin, pp. 69-70; July-August, 1998, Deborah Stevenson, The Education of Robert Nifkin, p. 408.
Horn Book, July-August, 1998, Ann A. Flowers, review of The Education of Robert Nifkin, pp. 495-496; May-June, 2004, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Looking for Bobowicz: A Hoboken Chicken Story, p. 336.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1975, review of Blue Moose, p. 661; July 15, 1977, review of Superpuppy: How to Choose, Raise, and Train the Best Possible Dog for You, p. 731; April 15, 1998, review of The Education of Robert Nifkin, p. 585; August 15, 2001, review of Irving and Muktuk, p. 1220; September 15, 2001, p. 1342; November 1, 2002, review of Mush's Jazz Adventure, p. 1612; July 1, 2003, review of The Picture of Morty and Ray, p. 913; February 15, 2004, review of Bad Bears in the Big City, p. 183.
Kliatt, September, 1981, Fran Lantz, review of Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, p. 14.
New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1979, Ann S. Haskell, "The Fantastic Mr. Pinkwater," pp. 32, 43; April 25, 1987, Peter Andrews, review of Slaves of Spiegel and Others, p. 51.
People, December 21, 1981.
Publishers Weekly, February 26, 1973, review of Wizard Crystal, p. 123; June 9, 1975, review of Blue Moose, p. 63; August 1, 1976, review of Lizard Music, p. 846; October 18, 1976, review of Lizard Music, p. 64; August 1, 1977, review of Superpuppy:, p. 115; July 7, 1997, p. 70; May 23, 1998, p. 101; February 22, 1999, p. 94; May 29, 2000, p. 43; August 21, 2000, p. 75; April 9, 2001, p. 28; May 21, 2001, p. 108; October 15, 2001, review of Uncle Boris in the Yukon and Other Shaggy Dog Stories, p. 60; June 30, 2003, review of The Picture of Morty and Ray, pp. 78-79; July 7, 2003, review of Fat Camp Commandos Go West, p. 74; September 8, 2003, review of Irving and Muktuk, p. 79.
Quill & Quire, January, 1990, Susan Perren, review of Uncle Melvin, p. 18.
School Library Journal, March, 1971, Ann D. Schweibish, review of The Terrible Roar, p. 123; January, 1990, Anna Biagioni Hart, review of Uncle Melvin, p. 88; April, 1992, Judy McAloon, review of Chicago Days, Hoboken Nights, p. 168; November, 2000, p. 129; May, 2001, Betsy Barnett, review of The Lunchroom of Doom, p. 131; Elizabeth Maggio, review of Fat Camp Commandos, p. 158; September, 2001, Karen J. Tannenbaum, review of Irving and Muktuk, p. 203; February, 2002, Kate Kohlbeck, review of The Werewolf Club Meets the Hound of the Basketballs, p. 110; June, 2002, Marilyn Ackerman, review of Fat Camp Commandos Go West, p. 108; October, 2002, Wendy S. Carroll, review of Mush, a Dog from Space, p. 125; February, 2003, Sally R. Dow, review of Mush's Jazz Adventure, p. 120; September, 2003, Steven Engelfried, review of The Picture of Morty and Ray, p. 187; April, 2004, Donna Cardon, review of Bad Bears in the Big City, p. 120; July, 2004, James K. Irwin, review of Looking for Bobowicz, pp. 110-111.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1982, Susan B. Madden, review of Young Adult Novel, p. 36; August, 1986, Susan B. Madden, review of The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror, p. 144.
Wilson Library Bulletin, March, 1982, Patty Campbell, review of Young Adult Novel, p. 533.
Fat!So? Web site, http://www.fatso.com/interview.html (March 23, 2005), Marilyn Wann, "Daniel Pinkwater and the Afterlife."
Official Pinkwater Page, http://www.pinkwater.com (March 23, 2005).*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Jan Peck Biography - Personal to David Randall (1972–) Biography - PersonalDaniel (Manus) Pinkwater (1941-) Biography - Personal, Awards, Honors, Adaptations, Sidelights - Career, Member, Writings, Work in Progress