The Art of The Phantom Tollbooth
Friday Five: 5 Classic Children's Covers

Daniel Pinkwater's Lizard Music by Robert Jackson Bennett

Lizard music daniel pinkwaterThere are lots of children’s books that I remember with a great deal fondness – anything written by Madeleine L’Engel, or Roald Dahl, or any of the Mary Poppins books – and I’m sure many of them made a deep impression on me.

But there’s one book in my memory that still has a very special place, to the extent that just thinking about it stirs up a fog of mystery and joy in my head.

There are many books that are good for children because of their story, theme, and general content. But very few writers actually manage to capture the logic and structure of a child’s mind: there is an actual strain of meaning that makes perfect sense to children, but either leaves adults stupefied, or escapes them entirely, leaving them unsure why the story has any appeal at all.

I don’t know how he does it, but Daniel Pinkwater structures his stories in this exact manner. I think part of it might be that, to a child, very little of what adults do or what happens in the adult world makes sense. And when adults try to explain things, they often fail entirely. I remember being about four and asking my father how the United States Electoral Colleges worked, and though he tried valiantly it utterly confused me.

Eventually, to most children, adult explanations boil down to, “Things happen this way just because.”

And that’s exactly how Pinkwater’s books work. They’re full of a whimsical absurdity that you wind up accepting just because it carries itself in such a confident matter: his stories aren’t crazy because they do not believe themselves to be crazy. After a while, you just shrug and say, “Okay,” and let the book sweep you off your feet.

I found Lizard Music (1976) at my school library when I was about eight, I think. And it’s the first time I remember reveling in a sense of mystery: some books, of course, use mystery to make you want to turn the page; but Lizard Music was one that had mystery built into its bones, a sort of giddy paranoia that suggested the whole world was filled with cryptic meaning – you just had to look at it the right way. I almost didn’t want to finish, because I was afraid I’d spoil the mystery.

I needn’t have worried.

The plot has an immense appeal to kids of all ages: the parents of the main character, Victor, have to go out of town, leaving Victor’s older sister in charge – but she, trusting to Victor’s rather adult nature, decides he can take care of himself, and goes camping with her friends. Victor, alone in the house, gets to do as he pleases, staying up late, eating pizza, and watching as much TV as he wants.

But he finds that, at a very special time in the middle of the night, his TV broadcast gets overridden, and for a few minutes his TV plays video of a group of lizards with musical instruments playing the strangest, most outrageous music he’s ever heard.

Then, with a blip, it’s gone.

But it happens the next night. And the next. And the next.

What is it? What’s the meaning of this? Is it real, or are the lizards men in costumes? Could it even be mind control?

The mystery begins to consume Victor, seeing more lizards on TV and all over the city in day-to-day life, and it spirals out of control until he finds help in a very unusual source: The Chicken Man, a bizarre but eloquent (and possibly homeless) man who rides the trains with a chicken under his hat, who somehow seems to know the lizards and understand who they are. They start a quest to unravel this strange and befuddling mystery, following clues written into the city, in the TV broadcast, in everything – which takes them to a secret island just off the city’s coast.

It’s this marvelous capacity to suggest logic within illogic that makes Lizard Music – and most of Pinkwater’s books – really fly. The set up is incredibly fascinating: it suggests there’s a secret message hinting a vast conspiracy within the mundane world – and note that Victor only finds this on his first experiment in adulthood: if he hadn’t been living independently, he’d never have found this mad truth. It’s the wild excursion into adult life that lets Victor see what strange things might be happening in the backstages of reality.

And what’s really great is that Lizard Music (unlike a lot of children’s books) doesn’t contend that the secret world exists only for the protagonist, nor does it aspire to an immense good versus evil set up. The secret world is just doing its thing – “Things happen this way just because” – and Victor just happens to stumble across it. And though Victor uncovers some things, the truth frequently remains tantalizingly opaque. It’s a bit like a children’s version of The Crying of Lot 49, in a way.

PinkwaterPerhaps the thing that really sticks in my craw about the book, though, is that about a year later I asked my parents to get it, and the book could not be found at any bookstore or library. One claimed it didn’t exist; another claimed it did, but it was at another library; but that other library always showed it as checked out.

To my young brain, which was already sizzling with conspiracy and joyful paranoia just thinking about Lizard Music, it made me think: “Did I dream this book? Was the book a secret message? Did I just happen to trip across it, as Victor did the lizards? Is someone keeping this book from me? Do I only get to read it once, and then it’s gone?”

I haven’t read Lizard Music since that first time – some twenty years ago or so, about. And you know, I’m not sure I want to. I know now that there is no vast conspiracy: Lizard Music, like a lot of Pinkwater’s books (especially Borgel, tragically), isn’t in print. It was probably out of print when I first picked it up in the early 90’s, since it was written in 1978. But I’m sure I could get it if I tried.

But there’s an aura of mystique to Lizard Music, just like there is around the actual lizard music in the story. It’s like I got a secret message from someone who really, deeply understood me, and while I sit and scratch my head and think, “What was that?” it’s already slipping away before I can understand it further.

I hope at least a few of the books I write will do to someone else what Lizard Music did to me: it opened up my head and fooled around with the machinery. I think there are a lot of parallels between Lizard Music and The Troupe, my own novel about a quest for truth in a strange world. But I’m not sure if I’ll ever do it as good as he did.

And I’m okay with that. Sometimes you’re just out of your league.


Robert Jackson Bennett is in a pretty impressive league of his own. The author of Mr. Shivers, The Company Man and The Troupe, Mr. Bennett has won the Shirley Jackson Award, Sydney J Bounds Newcomer Award, earned a special citation from the Philip K. Dick Award (in a good way - not a parking ticket) and recently won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original for The Troupe. He's a lovely chap who can make sweet musky word love to the listening holes of your face.