Daniel Pinkwater, a much-loved living treasure of children's literature, has a new book out today. It's called Mrs Noodlekugel and it is a simple, silly pleasure that feels like the end-product of a lifetime of telling children's stories, carefully removing all the elements that are extraneous to young readers' enjoyment until nothing but the essentials remain. I like to think of Pinkwater's books that way, a kind of skeletal Jenga tower, every extraneous block removed and used to make the structure taller.
Nick and Maxine live in a high-rise apartment building, and one day they discover that one window overlooks a tiny, old fashioned cottage in a small green between their tower and several others. The building's janitor tells them that this is Mrs Noodlekugel's house, and when they quiz their parents about it, they are forbidden to go there.
So they go there. And Mrs Noodlekugel is a sweet old lady who has a talking cat and four nearly-blind mice who get the crumbs from their tea-parties, and she is perfectly pleasant and tells them they're welcome the next day for a gingerbread baking project that the talking cat is undertaking. When the kids tell their parents about this, their parents reveal that they knew all about her, and that she is their new babysitter, and the kids realize they've been tricked.
But they don't mind. They've got Mrs Noodlekugel and the baking. The mice help. And the gingerbread mice — which the real mice roll around on — come to life when they come out of the oven. Everyone's delighted by this, and then the crows eat them. But that's OK. They were only gingerbread. And besides, it would be unsanitary to eat cookies that the nearly blind mice rolled around on.
Adam Stower's illustrations are just a little old fashioned, enough to make them seem, you know, a bit classy, but without losing any of their kid appeal. And Pinkwater is, as always, the Fred Astaire of weird, making the fantastic seem effortless. Reading Pinkwater as a boy made me the happy mutant I am today. Reading Pinkwater today keeps me happily mutated in the face of the world's relentless insistence on normalcy.
(MRS. NOODLEKUGEL. Text copyright © 2012 by Daniel Pinkwater. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Adam Stower. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA. )