SCOTT SIMON, host:
Hanukkah gets underway this weekend. Christmas, a little over a week away. Kwanza follows. And nestled somewhere in between is the winter solstice. Right now marks the quiet, snowy moment just before families gather from far and wide to crowd into the kitchen and steam the living room windows. What's that sound in the distance? A faint rup-tup-tupping on the rooftop. Could it be? It is - our ambassador from the world of children's literature, Daniel Pinkwater! He's arrived with a pile of books under his arms - to give, to get, simply to read and enjoy this winter. He joins us from his home in upstate New York, which he enters through the chimney. How are you, Daniel?
DANIEL PINKWATER: Scott, given it's the season, given that a bookstore is the perfect place for last-minute shoppers, I want to do it like the real book reviewers do on the radio and read off a list of titles that we never got around to and I like them.
SIMON: Sure. Okay.
PINKWATER: Is this okay?
PINKWATER: I'll just give you my list.
PINKWATER: First, "A Collection of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories" from Candlewick Press, handsome volume illustrated by different artists, all good. These are the greatest read-aloud stories of all time.
PINKWATER: If I could, I would appear with you on this program every week to read "The Elephant's Child."
Next I have "Flamingos on the Roof" from Houghton Mifflin. Poems and paintings by the great Calef Brown.
SIMON: We've had Calef Brown books before.
PINKWATER: The bebop artist and poet, he did "Polkabats and Octopus Slacks." The guy's terrific. In the interest of full disclosure, and because I'm proud of it, I have to mention that we got him to do the cover of my new book.
Next we have "Eddie's Kingdom," also Houghton Mifflin, from D.B. Johnson, another favorite of mine. He is the - he's the one who did "Henry Hikes to Fitchburg."
SIMON: Yes. I recognize the style now. I'm taking a look at a copy.
PINKWATER: And "Henry Climbs a Mountain." This one has people instead of bears. There's a hidden art history lesson in the book, so I won't give anything away. And another one illustrated by him but written by Linda Michelin is "Zuzu's Wishing Cake." This is a younger book with a nice message about sharing. We have "Shlemiel Crooks" from June Bug Books, by Anna Olswanger.
SIMON: May an onion grow in your navel.
PINKWATER: Oh right.
SIMON: I read this book and it's hilarious.
PINKWATER: It's a hilarious book.
SIMON: It really is. It's about two schlemiel crooks and you learn a lot of Yiddish and...
PINKWATER: Yeah. It's life in the St. Louis ghetto back when, "Shlemiel Crooks."
"Mr. Maxwell's Mouse" from Kids Can Press, Frank Ash and Devon Ash; this is a dark, rich and disturbing picture book.
SIMON: Oh yes.
PINKWATER: A businessman cat talks things over with his intended lunch.
SIMON: The intended lunch is shown on the cover; in fact, on a silver platter, on a raft of toast.
PINKWATER: Not for the faint of heart, however.
PINKWATER: And here, this is the piece de resistance - "365 Penguins." "365 Penguins" from Abrams, by Jean-Luc Fromental and Joelle Jolivet. Penguins are getting a lot of attention lately. This oversized book is all about numbers and computation, but without ceasing to be interesting and funny all the way through. The art is spectacular. This book is a real masterpiece.
SIMON: And boy, if you like penguins, there certainly are enough of them.
PINKWATER: There's 365. Now, I'm done with my list.
SIMON: Okay. I've had these books out. I've been trying to open them one by one. Let me re-pile them here. Hold on. You've got a book for us to read too.
PINKWATER: Yes, I have a book for us to read. This is "The Secret Science Project That Almost Ate the School" by Judy Sierra.
PINKWATER: Pictures by Stephen Gammel. I would say that we should just read the thing. It is self explanatory.
PINKWATER: And would you like to begin?
SIMON: A little girl with frizzy hair and glasses sitting at her desk, I was glumpy, I was grouchy, I was slouching in my chair. I was thinking grim and gloomy thoughts about the science fair.
PINKWATER: Miranda bragged her rocket ship could travel to the moon. Alexander taught his hamster how to sing a tune. The ants on Mary's ant farm were growing corn and peas. And Kevin Fink was on the brink of curing a disease.
SIMON: Miss Fidget - this is the teacher, undoubtedly - Miss Fidget looked me in the eye. I wished that I could hide. What will your project be, she asked. It's a secret, I replied.
PINKWATER: The secret was, I didn't really have a project yet. I needed an experiment that no one would forget. So I stayed up late and found a great one on the Internet.
SIMON: Is this the first reference I think I've heard in a children's book to the Internet?
PINKWATER: The fist you've heard.
PINKWATER: But most children's book writers are fairly retrograde, like me.
SIMON: And on that page it says - I will read the lettering on the page - a science project fully guaranteed to win first prize. A substance so amazing judges won't believe their eyes. A mutant yeast with just a piece of dragon DNA. Professor Swami's super slime. Order yours today.
PINKWATER: I sent the money instantly. Then early Friday morning a box appeared. It looked so weird with big, green letters - warning - your super slime is sensitive so handle it with care. Keep it safe inside this box until the science fair. Then feed it sugar 'til it swells one thousand times in mass. Stand back as it erupts into a harmless cloud of gas.
SIMON: I popped the lid and gave the slime a teeny, tiny poke. It started getting bigger. It growled and blew off smoke.
PINKWATER: It catapulted from the box and splattered on the floor precisely as Sir Scratchalot, the cat, steps through the kitty door and plopped his paws in mutant muck. He rudely hissed and spit. Yikes. The secret science project ate my kitty cat.
SIMON: Is that your stupid science project, asked my sister Kate. Stop, I said, you'll hurt its feelings. Oops. It was too late. The slime began to spin around. It rose into the air. And when it roared and hit the floor, my sister wasn't there.
PINKWATER: Just then I heard my father's voice. What's going on in there? Something in that bedroom smells like moldy underwear. My science project's sensitive, I warned, don't make it mad. There wasn't time to stop the crime. The slime ingested dad.
SIMON: Not a tear visible, but I'll continue to read.
SIMON: The science project looked at me. I thought I saw it drool. I tried to run away, but yikes, it followed me to school. Miss Fidget shouted, eewwww, what is that big, disgusting creature? The slime stopped short and gave a snort and ate my third grade teacher.
PINKWATER: It grew larger by the minute as it swallowed Alexander and incorporated Kevin Fink and Mary and Miranda. As the slime was busy slurping up the last of Mary's ants, I remembered the instructions in the pocket of my pants.
SIMON: Sugar, I commanded. Feed that hungry slime some sweets. Kids reached in their backpacks. Soon the air was filled with treats, as donuts flew and cookies too and candy bars and gum, the bloated blob was quick to gobble every single crumb.
PINKWATER: I shook a can of soda pop and sprayed the growing slime till I could tell that it had swelled at least a thousand times. Now everybody hide, I screamed.
SIMON: Kablis, kablam, kabloo! It vanished in a stupefying burst of Co2.
PINKWATER: When the dust had cleared away, my dad was up a tree. My teacher dangled from the roof. We all were on TV. Sir Scratchalot, I called and called, what happened to my cat? He's on your head, my sister said, pretending he's a hat.
SIMON: My project didn't win first prize and that was fair, I guess. Miss Fidget kept me after school to clean up all the mess. And underneath the cookie bits and sugary debris, I saw a goopy glob of slime and, yikes, it winked at me.
PINKWATER: In the tradition of "Casey at the Bat" and Edgar Allen Poe, and such really just exuberant, over-the-top drawings. What can I say?
SIMON: That's a wonderful story. Daniel, thank you very much.
PINKWATER: Scott, happy holidays. A pleasure to speak with you as always.
SIMON: Daniel Pinkwater, our ambassador to the world of kiddie literature. His upcoming book, "The Neddiad," is being serialized online at theneddiad.com. He joined us from his home in upstate New York. And by they way, for a list of Daniel's recommendations, you can come to our Web site, npr.org.