For Young Readers
The days of radio and toasted cheese.
Tired of novels for middle-graders set in either the too-familiar present or the time-shorn zone of fantasy? A couple of the best writers for the age group look to the past.
How Neddie Took the Train, Went to Hollywood,
and Saved Civilization
By Daniel Pinkwater
Houghton Mifflin. 307 pp. $16 (ages 10-14)
Pinkwater, master of nostalgia-tinged satire (or is it satire-tinged nostalgia?), sets this very funny encomium to the ’ 40s in a swath of America stretching from Chicago to L.A. Young Neddie Wentworthstein rides the deluxe Super Chief out west with his family when his father, a shoelace magnate, abruptly relocates. Once there, big sister Eloise demands to be enrolled immediately in Hollywood High School: “It is the law that you have to send your children to school. I do not want to go driving around with you people like the grapes of wrath.” But Neddie, a youthful Pinkwater alter ego, has bigger things to worry about. During the stopover in Albuquerque, a Navajo shaman named Melvin had given him a small carved turtle, which, he learns, may well be “the rarest and most valuable turtle, real or artificial, on the planet,” key to the preservation of life as we know it. Neddie and his sidekicks battle ancient, malevolent, anti-turtle forces (they are “underground, sort of, and they are dead, only they aren’t”) against a Southern California backdrop incorporating many of the things Pinkwater loves most, from comic books, circuses and Saturday movie matinees to old cars, old radio shows and, always, food. A lot of these period references will be lost on kids (Dizzy Gillespie and “Nights in Tunisia,” anyone? Scalloped Chicken Paprika with Noodles Polonaise?). But Neddie’s pitch-perfect rendition of that ’40s voice — a tad formal, a smidgen hardboiled, faintly tongue-in-cheek — should charm even the most jaded 12-year-old. pace, reeling off anecdotes about doing his bit on the home front, collecting rubber, tin cans and such, while his worshiped older brother is off with the Air Force. Plot isn’t the point here so much as mood: summer evening light slanting through a kitchen window, porch lights coming on after a blackout like “buzzing fishbowls in yellow halos,” “the whole world . . . golden with forsythia in bloom.” Like Pinkwater, Peck also hauls out favorite stage props to conjure up a lost era: vintage cars, oldfashioned schoolmarms, grumpy senior citizens with hearts of gold, air raids and scrap drives, Philco radios and toasted cheese sandwiches. Still, he’s not one to wallow. Peck’s disciplined sentences are like little shots of poetry with a kicker of anxiety or, more often, comedy to keep sentimentality in check. “It was almost real life we were living, but not really. It was just waiting, and I didn’t know if I was a brother or not.” “A teacher shortage raised our hopes, but this year school started on time.” The understatement, of course, only heightens the nostalgia.
ALSO NOTED: Harlem Summer, by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic, $16.99; ages 12up). Like a black teenage Zelig, 16-year-old Mark Purvis runs into everyone worth meeting, and then some, in Harlem’s heyday. It’s 1925, and the aspiring young sax player has traded a summer job in a funeral parlor for a gig at the Crisis magazine downtown, where he meets the likes of W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes. Now he has to figure out whether he wants to be “a New Negro or just an ordinary Negro” — or maybe even the new Fats Waller, if he can just wriggle free of the gangster Dutch Schultz. Cursory history but a thoroughly entertaining read.