Children at the serious chapter-book level who are already looking to have their expectations shaken up a bit will be delighted by just about any of the dozens of books the man has written, right up to last year's Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl. (Parents who never encountered Pinkwater’s fertile, chaotic mind as kids themselves will be in for a treat, too.) But Lizard Music is kind of where it all began (at least for me).
It's told from the point of view of Victor, a 14-year-old boy left behind by his parents when they go on vacation under the supervision of his slightly older sister. (Can you tell yet that this book was written more than 30 years ago?) He is, of course, delighted when his sister ditches her responsibility and leaves him entirely alone. While he’s staying up late and watching as much TV as he can, Victor stumbles upon a late-night transmission from a group of, well, alien lizards. With the help of a local character known as the Chicken Man (who’s based on a real Chicagoan), he decides to try to find out what the lizards are up to.
Obviously, this is not your average kids' chapter-book plot synopsis (though thanks to Pinkwater's influence on a generation of writers, it's slightly less out there than it was when the book came out). Stated flatly, it may even sound a bit off-putting, but the tone of the writing—wry, sardonic, humorous, never taking itself too seriously—is all. (I think my friends who were the biggest Pinkwater fans as kids went on to become Frank Zappa aficionados in their later teen years—there's a common thread there.)This author's work is about reveling in being different, and while today we have a whole genre of entertainment on that subject, his approach still remains fresh, and all his own.
So if you see Captain Beefheart albums in your child's future, I can pretty much guarantee that this new edition of Lizard Music, complete with the author's own original woodcut illustrations, will become an immediate favorite. And even if you don’t, it’s well worth a look—Pinkwater has been a cornerstone of children’s lit for quite some time now, and this is one of his best.
[Image courtesy of New York Review Children’s Collection.]