The Neddiad: How Neddie Took the Train, Went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization
Houghton Mifflin April, 2007.
The Neddiad is the first in a new series of children's fiction by Daniel Pinkwater. It is written in much the same spirit and tone as his earlier books, although perhaps a tad more serious than most -- at least at the start. It is written for kids from ages 10-14, but is quite enjoyable for older folk too.
It starts off a bit slow -- but only in comparison to Pinkwater's earlier children's books. It is set earlier than most of his other books, taking place sometime around 1950, and the first few chapters are a lot like his autobiographical essays, except that they are clearly about a fictional kid: Neddie Wentworthstein. He is just like every other Pinkwater main character -- a slightly naive preteen boy who enjoys odd people and odd places, and takes pretty much everything in stride.
He has an odd family, and finds himself in an odd situation when his father decides to pack up the family on a whim and travel to California. The trip is unusual, but not too exciting; they ride on a train, see some odd sites, meet some odder people. Even so, it looks like the story is going to be basically a historical travel-log, written to introduce children to the excitement of a WWII America. This somewhat traditional story path ends abruptly when our protagonist meets a ghost. Admittedly, it is a somewhat mundane ghost, who doesn't haunt as much as hang out, but even so, it's a pretty strong hint that this is not going to be a boring story.
And indeed it isn't. There are mystical turtles and magical shamans and Fat Men From Space. By the end of the book this is clearly up to the standards of any of the classic Pinkwater novels, although there is enough real-world cool stuff to make it worth reading even if you aren't big on the fantasy elements. Ned finds himself in Hollywood during its heyday, and gets to explore shops that supply the studios with props, visit the wintering grounds of the circus, appear on a live radio broadcast, and experience the La Brea Tar Pits first hand.
The story includes many references to Pinkwater's previous works, from an extremely subtle mention that the kids in the old neighborhood liked to play Captain Nemo to the boarding school built in the refurbished remains of Hergeshleimers' Oriental Gardens. The entire plot reminds me strongly of Borgel, and any Pinkwater fan will see dozens of parallels to his past works. However, recognizing these references is not at all necessary in order to enjoy the book.
I don't generally read books for their messages, but it is worth noting that Ned is a good role model. He is a nerd -- he's a big fan of Pleistocene-era paleontology, he thinks that school is cool, even when the other kids are jerks, and he doesn't buy into the other kids' idea of what is cool. He stays calm and open-minded when he comes across a ghost or an evil villain, and he enjoys adventures without doing anything stupid. And none of this "it's okay for me to be different because I'm a tragic orphan who will save the world" stuff that's so popular these days -- it's okay for Ned to be different because he is interested in different things. That's all.
There are currently only two other books about the adventures of Neddie Wentworthstein and friends: The Yggyssey: How Iggy Wondered What Happened to All the Ghosts, Found Out Where They Went, and Went There and Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl.
It is available on GoogleBooks, both for preview and for purchase.