We first encountered Daniel Pinkwater in the fourth grade, when our teacher (hi, Mr. Lewis!) read Fat Men From Space to our enthralled class. Nothing in our reading life up until that point (i.e. the Dragonlance Chronicles ) had prepared us for this truly extraordinary story, in which a boy named William, who is able to intercept radio transmissions via his dental filling, picks up signals from a group of space pirates who traverse the galaxy in search of its finest junk foods. William is forced to watch as the pirates float down to Earth from their giant space hamburgers and rampage about, eating up all the pizza ("All we do when we invade a planet is walk around and have a snack, and we don't pay for it either"). The young Rejectionist was, needless to say, totally hooked. We went on to read nearly every one of his dozens of books for young adults, and have reread more than a few of them so many times over the years that we can quote bits of them at opportune moments.
Daniel Pinkwater is gleefully and unrepentantly weird. Not ironically weird, or self-consciously weird, or hiply weird: really weird. For a painfully awkward young person with a profound inability to master the basic precepts of interpersonal communication, his books were a godsend: here were our people! if only those kids went to our school! His books are full of talking lizards and enlightened chickens, boys from Mars, sentient avocados, and smart, funny, really weird kids. His characters have names like Samuel Klugarsh, Winston Bongo, and Bentley Saunders Harrison Mathews (who goes by Rat, and drops lines like: "the kids at Custer are mostly insects, mentally. Some of the boys are not too bad--the ones I take automotive shop with, for instance--but they've been brainwashed to hate me. The girls are all subnerds. They fear me because I am a liberated woman. I ignore them"). Most of his heroes are unapologetically fat ("I'm about the shortest kid in the school. Also the fattest. People refer to me as No Neck. It's my nickname. I happen to look like a penguin. Is that so bad?").
The kids always win in Pinkwater's novels, but they don't Learn Lessons or lose weight or have people suddenly realize their inner beauty and fall in love with them. They stay weird and do things like take over the school or move to other planets or travel to different dimensions or learn techniques of mind control with which to destroy their enemies. They are, in short, pretty fucking great. We recommend beginning with Five Novels, an anthology of some of his greatest books for young adults (including Slaves of Spiegel, Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, and The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death). Lizard Music is being reissued in a super-snazzy version by the New York Review in January of 2011. Happy birthday, Daniel Pinkwater!