The Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater
In the late 1940’s, a boy and his quirk-tacular family take the train from Chicago to Hollywood. Along the way the boy, Ned, is entrusted with a sacred turtle and the fate of the world. Only “the guy with the turtle” can stop the machinations of a demon, present location the La Brea Tar Pits, who seeks to reverse time and bring back the age of the dinosaurs.
What I learned Part 1: It is possible to write a successful book with a passive protagonist and without tension; but brevity, wit and charm become paramount. From the get-go every line of the book lets you know that it will end well (as does the subtitle), still each moment feels so alive with fresh, weird details that it keeps you reading. An example, the family’s entire move from Chicago to Los Angeles is predicated on Ned and his father’s desire to eat regularly in “a restaurant shaped like a hat.” I would highly recommend this book as a case study of an author breaking core storytelling rules and getting away with it.
What I learned Part 2: Short chapters can drive you through a story quickly. The chapters in The Neddiad averaged roughly two pages long and each covered only one story beat. The following chapter title always specifically promised to answer the question posed at the end of each beat, which made things flow along without the choppiness you would expect with so many breaks.
What I learned Part 3: “How?” can be enough of an engine for a story, if the “how” is unique enough. Knowing from the cover of the book that “Neddie took the train, went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization,” there is no question of the ending. But the “how did he save civilization?” question was sufficiently interesting (because Ned is a very likable, but not particularly active or talented boy) to keep me reading. If the author hadn’t let it be known at the beginning that the fate of the world would come into question, all the charming early details would have lost their light urgency and the whole plot might have collapsed.