For Young Read­ers

The days of ra­dio and toasted cheese.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Book World - By El­iz­a­beth Ward

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.

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