“All my books were easy to write — doesn’t it show?”
~ Daniel Pinkwater
How could I not like Daniel Pinkwater?
Whenever I see his name I smile. I was thinking how this is a strange, conditioned response. I don’t know how or why it happens. Sure, he’s written around 100 books. And to be honest, it’s not like I’ve read dozens and dozens of them. I’ve read maybe ten. But they got to me. So much so, that whenever I see his name on a book, I put my Ugawawa mocassins on the wrong feet, step slightly to the left of center, and shift into giggle-and-snort mode. I just know it’s going to be good.
Hello. How could I not like a man who writes about polar bears and blueberry muffins?
So far, there are five titles in the Irving and Muktuk, Bad Bears, picture book series (ages 5-8). Trust me. This 9-foot tall pair with slitty, sneaky side eyes and galompo feet will have you rooting for them after the first page. Their main crime? Well, they do cheat each other at cards. But mostly they are motivated by the quest for muffins and more muffins, which results in questionable behavior, like, um, stealing.
In the first book, Irving and Muktuk: Two Bad Bears (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), we are introduced to the arctic town of Yellowtooth, which holds a Blueberry Muffin Festival every New Year. After Officer Bunny sees the bears trying to break into the muffin warehouse, he lures them into his station wagon, and has them airlifted by helicopter far above the Arctic Circle. The following New Year, the duo returns to Yellowtooth disguised as very large penguins. They are airlifted again and return three more times with different disguises, until Officer Bunny finally makes arrangements to have them relocated to the Bayonne Zoo.
In Bad Bears in the Big City, we learn that besides being large, clever, and sneaky, Irving and Muktuk are really just like the rest of us. Sure, they’ve arrived at the zoo with a note saying they are not to be trusted. But that doesn’t mean they eat people. And if you met another polar bear named Roy, and he got to leave the zoo at the end of the day to sleep in his own apartment, wouldn’t you long to explore life on the outside, too? Especially if there’s a muffin factory right next door? And if, after your little adventure, you realize you’re in big trouble, wouldn’t you break out in tears and milk them for all they’re worth?
In each book, Pinkwater pulls our emotional strings, as we watch these master manipulators at work. The narratives have a mock serious tone, fueled by Pinkwater’s signature sense of humor, which can only be described as understated, wry, droll, and huh? When paired with Jill Pinkwater’s bright felt pen and ink illustrations, the result is irresistible.
But it’s not just an exercise in wackiness. There’s something very endearing about two polar bears lying on boxes of peas in the frozen foods section of the supermarket. Something heartwarming about two large, furry heads resting on matching green pillows. Something ingenious about two bears able to disguise themselves as furry muffins. Or the fact that bad as they are, huge as they are, they can be transformed into models of good behavior by a chastizing little bunny.
This blend of guile and vulnerability makes Irving and Muktuk very accessible to young readers. They will admire the bears’ craftiness, laugh at their silliness, totally understand their hurts and fears, and above all, embrace their badness. Just the type of thing to make the parental units squirm. Isn’t one of the biggest frustrations of childhood being misunderstood?
And if you fear that your little ones will growl for more after devouring these five books, rest assured that Mr. Pinkwater has already seen to that — a series of picture books about Larry, another polar bear who is Roy’s brother. Irving and Muktuk appear in these stories, too, but never steal the spotlight from Larry, who is busy playing bongos, dancing ballet, and eating ice cream.
I was thinking about how Daniel Pinkwater has influenced my own writing. I have a tendency to dwell in school teacher mode — to be adult, logical and politically correct. This comes from wanting to be taken seriously, I suppose, to feel like I’m part of the group. The creative side of me always longs to do just the opposite, and whenever I read a Pinkwater book, I am reminded about the importance of pleasing the child within. He once said:
I imagine a child. That child is me. I can reconstruct and vividly remember portions of my own childhood. I can see, taste, smell, feel, and hear them. Then what I do is, not write about that kid or about his world, but start to think of a book that would have pleased him.
Well, he’s obviously doing something right. Should I send him some muffins?
For more about Daniel Pinkwater, visit his website. Not to be missed are two food-related pieces, The Ratatouille Diet, and The Infamous Chicago Hot Dog Commentary. You probably know that he also reads and discusses children’s books on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon.