Happy Birthday to Daniel Pinkwater, the Man Who Gave Alan Mendelsohn to a Misfit Kid

Daniel Pinkwater in 2011EXPAND
Daniel Pinkwater in 2011
Cory Doctorow

One of my geek heroes, Daniel Manus Pinkwater, turns 74 on Sunday, November 15. Although he’s best known as the author of many kids’ and YA books, he’s an NPR personality and accomplished illustrator as well. It was in his guise as an author that I came to know and love him, though, and his writing weighed heavily in my becoming the geek that I am today.

My first encounter with Pinkwater was in late 1983, or perhaps early 1984, when I came across Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars at the library. I’ve read the book so many times since then that it’s practically a part of my DNA, but what I remember most about that first time is that I read the entire book — all 248 pages of it — in one day. I didn’t do it to prove I could (although I have to admit, I was impressed with myself once I had); I did it because the story was fucking riveting. I literally couldn’t put it down until I was finished.

It’s the story of a nerdy kid who moves to a new school where everyone ignores him until one day he meets another misfit kid who turns out to be from Mars. Together, they nerd around reading comics and goofing off until one day they buy a course on developing psychic talents like telekinesis and telepathy from a shady dude who runs an occult bookstore. After some practice, they discover they’re pretty adept at both telekinesis and telepathy, and go back to learn more. Eventually they learn to use their powers to visit other planes of reality and save the day in one of those other planes.

When I read that book, I felt like Pinkwater had pulled it directly from my own brain. Here was a book about a couple of kids who weren’t all that different than me, who had the kind of crazy, messed-up adventures I dreamt of having. I longed for psychic powers and the opportunity to travel to alternate dimensions! How fucking cool would that be? At the time, I’m certain I would have told you that the appeal was all in the adventure — the mental powers, the weird people they met and things they did, that kind of stuff. In retrospect, that wasn’t really it. I mean, yes, that helped, but probably 90 percent of what I read at the time was full of that stuff.

What set this book apart was how I related to the characters and their more real-world issues. The main character, Leonard Neeble, wears glasses, is portly and permanently rumpled, and is stuck in a new school where the only time anyone pays him the slightest attention is when they laugh or yell at him. At the time, that was me — apart from the fact I was stick-thin rather than portly. At that point, I was the perpetual new kid, already on my fifth school — pretty impressive, considering I was only in fourth grade. I wore glasses and if people ever noted my clothes, it was to make fun of them. As comforting as it was to pretend to be Luke Skywalker, here was a hero I could truly relate to. I suffered through the same alienation, loneliness and awkwardness that Leonard did, and he was someone who understood what that felt like and could somehow make it better.

I read as many of Pinkwater's other books as I could and found other fellow travelers to identify with, along with plenty of weird adventures and off-the-wall humor. The books are full of strange shit — super-intelligent chickens, secret cities full of lizard people, an avocado-based supercomputer — and Pinkwater's sense of humor is somewhere between absurd and certifiably insane. It’s hard to say what kind of person I’d have ended up without those books playing such a big role in my pre-adolescence, but it’s noteworthy that I have a deep appreciation for the absurd, to the point where some people wonder if I am not certifiable myself. More to the point, in the years that followed, when the pressure to fit in and find your place became omnipresent (i.e., junior high), I often returned to Pinkwater's books.

At the time, I thought it was simply a dip into pre-teen fantasy, but now I think it was because I drew strength from those characters — Leonard and the titular Snarkout Boys from The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, in particular, though there were others — and they helped me to not lose too much of my weird, misfit self in the crucible of hormones and forced socialization that is junior high. That served me well, and I’m not sure I’d have weathered the storm nearly as well without his work. That’s not a debt I can ever really repay, but at the very least, I can take a moment to wish the man a fantastic birthday. Hope it’s a great one, Mr. Pinkwater.


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