You probably read it in sixth or seventh grade — a book so cool you couldn't believe it was homework. It was a story about teenagers who smoked, drank, played pranks, and made out; parents were insane, and kids had to strike out on their own to find love and acceptance. For many kids, Paul Zindel's The Pigman was the book that first made them sit up and pay attention in English class.
Zindel has been credited with revolutionizing the young-adult fiction genre. The Pigman, published in 1968, moved away from the rose-colored-glasses adult fantasy of childhood to a quirky but honest depiction of adolescent angst and deeply flawed parenting. Zindel knew a thing or two about both.
Zindel was born in 1936 in Staten Island, N.Y., to Beatrice and Paul Zindel. His father abandoned the family when his son was 2; his mother moved him and his sister around a lot, doing odd jobs, trying her hand at get-rich-quick schemes, and nursing the terminally ill. In Zindel's 1993 memoir, The Pigman and Me, he introduces his mother by saying, "My mother was singing, which is what she did a lot of whenever she wasn't threatening to commit suicide." He also wrote that she stole from her employers, hated men, and shunned social situations "because she thought people wanted to spy on her." Zindel grew up an insecure and insular child.
Though he had an early interest in writing and wrote plays throughout high school, Zindel studied chemistry at Wagner College and became a chemistry teacher at Tottenville High School in Staten Island, an experience that offered plenty of fodder for his future unflattering portrayals of teachers. Zindel wrote several plays while teaching, finally finding success with The Effects of Gamma-Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. The story focused on two teenage girls being raised by a paranoid, irrational, and hypercritical mother who took care of terminally ill patients. Haunting yet humorous, the play received critical acclaim, was produced on Broadway, and garnered an Obie and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1972, it was adapted as a film starring Joanne Woodward and directed by Paul Newman. The Effects of Gamma-Rays' success allowed Zindel to take a sabbatical from teaching and focus on his writing.
When Charlotte Zolotow, a children's-book editor with Harper and Row, saw a made-for-television version of Zindel's play, she was impressed by its understanding of adolescents and asked Zindel to write young-adult books. Zindel agreed, and his first work, The Pigman, was an instant success. Jack Jacob Forman, author of the biography Presenting Paul Zindel, contends that the novel, along with S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders and J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, radically altered young-adult fiction, transforming a genre that was "pedestrian, predictable, and formulaic — meant to satisfy adult stereotypes of adolescence." In The Pigman, parents are deeply flawed and even malicious entities; kids are insecure, confused, and searching for acceptance; and death and emotional scars are facts of life. Yet Zindel was able to get his message across in a manner so entertaining and conversational that The Pigman continues to grip young readers some 35 years later.
Zindel continued writing, creating more than 50 young-adult novels, more than a half-dozen plays, an adult novel, several screenplays and teleplays, and a children's book titled I Love My Mother before he died of cancer on March 27 at age 66. But despite his prolificacy, Zindel's works were endlessly repetitive, trading on the same themes as The Pigman without the spark that made his first book so magical. But even if Zindel's career peaked early, The Pigman and its unique ability to both entertain kids and force them to ponder issues of morality and mortality amounts to an impressive apex.