Paul Zindel must have felt compelled by an irresistible force to expound upon a childhood that in a biography reads as well as his novels. Paul and Betty could just as well have been John and Lorraine just as Nonno Frankie became Angelo Pignati. Staten Island becomes as familiar as home just as the streets and avenues score themselves into our memories as the carvings on the desks we saw 280 days of each year in our own schools.
Zindel’s family problems are reflected mirror-like in those of John and Lorraine, but other less personal problems, like racism and poverty (if they can be considered less personal than family) erupt with the clarity and lucidity of a sucker-punch. The combining of the two families under one roof is unusual but not unheard of just as the depiction of small town residents as zombies is obviously hyperbolic, yet, to some degree, credible.
Nonno Frankie’s concern for the life of the apple tree symbolizes the deeper truths that form the foundation for moral behavior and stands majestically as a tribute to the lasting permanence of integrity that transcends the passing changes that overtake children in their pursuit of identity and the meaning of life. His incessant humor revives memories of undying, childish frivolousness so necessary for the bonding of friendships among children. Something has to offset the constant flood of disappointments and hurts that flow from the novelty of growing up in a strange and threatening environment. Nonno’s pranks to wake up the zombies were analogous to the antics of John in the classroom, the mischievous behavior that should expected of normal, growing, young adults.
Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. If I were to include more than twenty Lassies in a story, it would be regarded as beyond belief. But, I did have twenty borzois at one time; so, the prospect is not inconceivable. Paul Zindel’s life as described supports the credo that one should write based on experience. But, that does not undermine the potential for exercising extensive creativity that stretches the imagination beyond the threshold of belief through the willing suspension of disbelief. Fiction knows no bounds.
Evaluation: This biography is not essential to understand the novels that grew from Paul Zindel’s experiences, but it helps to understand the mind that created the Pigman which itself personifies a universal ideology. The reading level is lower than the novels and far easier to understand. Hence, I see this narrative as a good basis for teaching characterization, setting, and dialogue as well as the idea of biographical sketches. The tone is simple and reader-friendly with enough humor to make the reading a pleasure rather a chore.
Recommendation: For the slow reader, this would be a motivating text to offer tasty tid-bits of the humor, philosophy, adventure, and emotional involvement that are more extensively offered in the novels of Paul Zindel. I would use it even for non-readers as a tool to break the shell of apathy since it would work well as story-telling material. It is not so much an autobigraphy as it is a preparatory statement to give pertinent background to answer inevitable questions.
Teaching: For advanced readers, I would use this as supplemental background information that confirms the tenet that good writing comes from real experiences. For less motivated readers, this text and styles lends itself well to emulation so that minimal success will reap greater rewards.