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.