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June 25, 2010

New Books: Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl

Daniel Pinkwater has been writing children’s books for a long time. Long enough, in fact, that I remember reading some of them back in grade school. I recall really enjoying them, but he’s written so many—and was so prolific even back then—that I can’t figure out exactly which ones they were among the titles in his “works by” lists. (This is driving me nuts, to the point where I’ll probably soon be sighted in my local library sitting in the children’s section, leafing through multiple Pinkwater volumes.) Still, the author’s name summons a vague memory of cleverly offbeat writing.

Now, I was aware that Pinkwater, who’s also now known for his appearances reviewing children’s books on NPR, was still as prolific as ever, but I hadn’t kept up with his work of the last, oh, twenty years, not having had kids of the age to appreciate them until quite recently. (His chapter books seem to be generally labeled as for ages nine to twelve, though as always with such recommendations, that seems a little high on the low end to me. Come to think of it, it might be a little low on the high end, too, in his case.)

Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl, his latest, is a spun off of two other recent Pinkwater novels, The Neddiad and The Yggysey (get it?); its main character, Big Audrey, was a supporting one in those two. But being unfamiliar with the previous books, as I am, isn’t a problem—the novel stands on its own. It’s narrated in the first person by Audrey herself—who, yes, has cat whiskers. Right off the bat, she informs the reader that she’s from another plane of existence—though, as we later discover, that’s not actually the explanation for the cat whiskers. (At this point, it all started to come back to me: One of the delights of Pinkwater’s writing is that the many, many unusual things that happen in it are treated matter-of-factly. They just are.)

Audrey begins the story in our plane of existence (well, Los Angeles, so kinda), having accompanied the heroes of the earlier books on their return from hers. She is working at a doughnut shop (about which she remarks, “Doughnuts are not unknown where I come from, but they are not used as food”), but decides her destiny lies elsewhere and heads east to Poughkeepsie, New York. There she finds work in a UFO-themed bookstore, whose owners instantly and happily convince themselves that her whiskered appearance mean she’s an extraterrestrial. (Audrey is too polite to disenchant them of their delight over this.)

She soon finds some new friends, both of whom are temporary residents of the local old-fashioned insane asylum: an extremely eccentric Vassar professor and a girl from the surrounding foothills who can read minds. Neither is really all that crazy, so when rumors about an old Dutch house in the area and flying saucers start to intersect with Audrey’s own hazy memories of her origins, they check themselves out to help her investigate.

I could go on—the story continues to calmly unfold along equally outlandish lines—but you get the point: This is strange stuff. And not that forced kind of strange one finds in many studiously offbeat kids’ books—the oddness just flows naturally, and each wild turn comes with a twinkle, the author’s winks at the reader. Pinkwater also folds sly references into the narrative—for instance, the characters have a brief discussion about whether bats eat cats or the other way around, which will strike a chord with fans of Lewis Carroll. (The best thing about this one was that while it was subtly done, it wasn’t one of those just-for-the-parents shout-outs—Dash, who’s been reading Alice in Wonderland recently, noticed the nod to Carroll immediately, maybe before I did.)

And Pinkwater writes masterfully. You always feel you’re in good hands as you take the ride with him—you may raise your eyebrows a lot, but he keeps you turning the pages to see what’s going to happen next. He’s funny, too, in a remarkably dry way; I had a bemused, ready-for-anything smile on my face all the way through the 288-page book. (If you happen to be reading it aloud to someone, you may even require brief pauses from time to time to regain your composure.)

Now, I suspect this kind of writing, as top-notch as it is, isn’t for everyone, child and parent alike. (I’m not sure what the bellwether would be for kids, but if you’re a parent who hates the early novels of Paul Auster, say, that might be a sign Pinkwater’s not for you.) But if you and your kids enjoy random, imaginative, and definitely weird plotlines, laced through with intelligent wit, I think you’ll find Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl, as well as the rest of this author’s voluminous oeuvre, a gold mine.

[Image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.]

1 comment:

  1. I like Pinkwater's Young Larry series, about a polar bear who becomes a lifeguard, and then eventually an ice cream pitchman. It shares the same matter-of-fact wackiness. We haven't hit the Pinkwater books for older kids yet, but it's probably time to check them out.