Daniel Pinkwater explains his role in the mystery of the NY State reading test pineapple race kerfuffle

Absurdist kids' literature hero Daniel Pinkwater is at the center of an appropriately absurd kerfuffle. An eighth-grade New York reading test published by Pearson republishes an edited (and much less funny) version of a fairy tale told in his novel Borgel (reprinted in this outstanding omnibus). In the original, an eggplant challenges a rabbit to a footrace and a group of spectator animals bet on the eggplant (figuring it must know something they don't). But eggplants can't run, so it loses. Then the animals eat it.

The test version changed the eggplant to a pineapple, and rewrote the passage so it is in "test-ese," then asked the kids to explain the "meaning" of the scene. Lots of students are mystified by this, and so is Pinkwater, who gave a gracious interview with the WSJ on the subject (who didn't do him the favor of mentioning that he has a tremendous new book coming out next week called Mrs Noodlekugel, which I'll be reviewing when it's out).

It’s a nuclear little family, a mother, father and three kids. An old man shows up at the door and says, “Hello, I’m your relative, I’m 111 years old.”

“You’re our relative how?”

He said, “I’m not quite clear about that. I know we’re related. I’m moving in.” And he brings in all his valises and moves into the back room. He becomes great friends with his great-great-great nephew.

In this particular passage, they’re on a bus, and Borgel, the old man, is telling him one of these fractured fables after another. And much better things happen. They go on a time-space adventure, and they meet God, who happens to be an orange popsicle. I think this may the only work of fiction in which it’s revealed that God can take the form of an orange popsicle, which I believe he can.

In the book, the moral is never bet on an eggplant. The old man is gradually giving the nephew reason to believe that he is senile or crazy by the things he says or does, so that the nephew will be alarmed but not surprised when the old man appears to be stealing a car. They take off on a road trip in it. But as far as I am able to ascertain from my own work, there isn’t necessarily a specifically assigned meaning in anything.

That really is why it’s hilarious on the face of it that anybody creating a test would use a passage of mine, because I’m an advocate of nonsense. I believe that things mean things but they don’t have assigned meanings.

I’m on this earth to put up a feeble fight against the horrible tendency people have to think that there’s a formula. “If I do the following things, I’ll get elected president.” No you won’t. “If I do the following things, my work of art will be good.” Not necessarily. “If I follow this recipe, the dish will come out very delicious.” Maybe.

Trust me, there is no formula for most things that are not math.

Daniel Pinkwater on Pineapple Exam: ‘Nonsense on Top of Nonsense’ (Thanks, Jennifer!)


    1. “They’re just questions, Leon. In answer to your query, they’re written down for me. It’s a test, designed to provoke an emotional response… Shall we continue? “

  1. Without specific regard to the controversy at hand, I am very heartened to find a kindred spirit in Daniel Pinkwater. I have always tended toward playing devil’s advocate in most situations as I believe that people’s tendency to see patterns is the defining flaw of humanity. It is the reason why our view of art is so malformed, and the reason for our easy manipulation in matters of politics and economics.
    In short, we allow our sense of logic to give way to self-righteousness.

    I realise that this may make me sound like a douchebag.

    1.  “I realise that this may make me sound like a douchebag.”

      Not at all. Well, maybe a little, but a very concerned and thoughtful douchebag.

  2. Honestly if it had been an essay question looking for critical analysis skills using a nonsense piece would be an excellent choice. No right answers means so long as the kids can come up with something and show support for it within the text they’ve learned what they need to.

    But multiple choice? With questions like that? All of them are pointless. A good number are opinions or value judgements.

  3. Captain Pinkwater taped a reading of Borgel for Dove Audio.

    When the time came to manufacture the set, the producers discovered that the box they’d commissioned only had room for one tape . . . so they distributed BORGEL, Part One, and never followed up with Part Two.  (Hey, those boxes are expensive!)

    That said, Part One is awesome. It covers the best part of the book, IMHO. Pinkwater reads gives Borgel an outrageous Yiddish-ish accent, including his recitation of those fairy tales.

    “Uncle” Borgel’s car is a 1937 Dorbzeldge. On several occasions, I’ve told telemarketers (who were  ignoring the No Call List) pitching automobile service contracts that I had a ’37 Dorbzeldge, just to waste their time.

    1. Go to:


      and you can download _all_ of Borgel for free!  Plus a lot more stories and a monthly podcast too!!!

  4. It disturbs me to know there are people somewhere at Pearson and in the NY school system who think they know the only simple correct  answers to these questions.

    1. Frequently send off my son (age 24) with “So long, sonny boy! Be a good little vempire!”

  5. The test writers thought that the animals ate the pineapple because they were annoyed, which is ridiculous. What animal or person eats something because they are annoyed at it? Annoyance eating–it’s a scourge. More likely, or just as likely,  they had no use for the pineapple because it just sat there and they were hungry. If they had stomped on the pineapple–that would have been annoyance.

  6. This would be really funny if school funding didn’t depend on kids being able to deliver the “right” answers to absurd questions. The sad thing is, the kids are probably way less thrown by this than everyone else; they’ve had the test-taking patterns drilled into them. Students who show the proper compliance will be able to pass the test.

    Does it concern anyone else that kids are being taught to believe that there is a single correct answer regardless of how much sense it makes? It’s like they’re being prepped for a lifetime of believing Pentagon press releases.

    1. It’s like they’re being prepped for a lifetime of believing Pentagon press releases.

      That’s the idea, no?

  7. Hmm, maybe this is actually beneficial to children.  Maybe the testers are smarter than we think.  Life poses many absurd choices every day, often with the “right” answer being equally absurd.

    Kudos to the testing folks, I say, for thinking outside the box of mere language proficiency!  Teach the kids that life is crazy and often the correct answer is whatever your boss, or the government, or whatever force is in power secretly had in mind in the first place.

    As an added bonus, they may seek out other Pinkwater literature in the future (my favorite involves the Snarkout Boys).

  8. “I believe that things mean things but they don’t have assigned meanings.”
    Hellz yeah! That’s why Mr. Terpstra can take the D he gave me in Freshman Lit and use it as a suppository.

  9. Christ, these students are awful whiners. Back in middle school, we were forced to answer concrete questions about absurdist literature for one hour every day. When we failed, we were forced to go to detention on floor 13, even though our school was only a single story, and the words “liar” were tattooed across each of our vertebrae. 

    This is all by way of saying, this all sounds more like a form of metaphysical punishment in a Franz Kafka story than a tool to further public educational goals.

  10. NOTICE
    PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be
    prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons
    attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
    BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

  11. My son is in 3rd grade in the NYC public school system and is half-way through the six days of mandatory state school testing. I’ve seen previous years’ tests, and they’re loaded with essays that have easily more than one possible answer. 

    These tests are confusing and absurd, and the stakes are very high. Teachers whose students perform poorly can have their names published, allowing for public shaming, and the kids’ scores will determine whether they can progress to schools with funding for things like gym, science, and art, or if they’ll be dumped into underfunded schools.

    In my opinion, the school system is horribly underfunded, and these tests are the arbitrary way of sorting the winners from the losers in terms of which kids get a proper education. The sorting begins in earnest in the 4th grade tests. This stuff is driving kids, parents, and teachers crazy with anxiety.

    1. Hang on, the schools that do poorly get less funding? “Your school is not good, so here’s less money, improve it.” With logic like that, no wonder you get test question like this; apparently this is how the people running the school system think.

  12. Wasn’t there an article a few months ago about the New York City Department of Education striking certain words/subjects from standardized tests? I think this is a test run for further absurdity when they’re no longer permitted to mention gambling, slavery, or birthday parties.

  13. Heh-heh…. “Test-ese”

    I loved ‘Fat Men from Space’ as a kid. Sorry to see it’s out of print, but my kids are enjoying Mr. Pinkwater’s other books.

  14. Just when I thought Daniel Pinkwater couldn’t get any more fantastic along comes something like this. I remember reading The Magic Moscow after my parents, for reasons I’ll never understand, got it for me for Christmas. When I was that age they seemed to go through the bookstore’s children’s section and grab stuff at random.

    I was so baffled by the book that I read it three times that year, and each time I swear it got funnier and funnier.

    Does anyone else remember the old John Robbins reading shows on PBS? He seemed to have a soft spot for Pinkwater. I remember he recommended both Lizard Music and The Hoboken Chicken Emergency.

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