THE PUMPKIN WAR, by Cathleen Young, Wendy Lamb Books, May 21, 2019, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
Often, we think how simple a child’s life is, but when you really look at their worlds, you begin to see how complex they truly are. Cathleen Young’s The Pumpkin War celebrates some of those intricacies.
At the end of every summer, visitors to Madeline Island are treated to an amazing sight — giant pumpkins floating in the water. They’re floating for a good reason. A giant pumpkin race. All summer, kids across the island grow thousand-pound pumpkins, then hollow one out and paddle in it across the lake to the cheers of the entire town.
Twelve-year-old Billie likes to collect ribbons — blue ones to be exact. Anything but first-prize is unacceptable. So last summer, when Billie’s best friend Sam crashed his pumpkin into hers as she was about to cross the finish line, Billie was devastated. Sam said it was an accident, but Billie can’t forgive him. He must have done it on purpose.
Now it’s the beginning of the pumpkin growing season, and Billie wants payback. She’s determined to grow the biggest, best pumpkin ever and drown all her competition at the race. There’s a lot of science, and work, behind growing giant pumpkins. Weather, bugs, the sun and even animal poop come into play. It’s a time-consuming challenge that can come to a quick end with one mishap. Billie has a solid plan, but when a long-lost relative makes a surprise visit, everything changes.
Cathleen Young’s lyrical prose is hard to ignore:
I watched Sam through my binoculars as he planted his pumpkin seedlings. He looked like a two-legged bug I could squash with my thumb.
I climbed higher through a web of tangled branches and emerald-green leaves smeared with sunlight, my binoculars swinging from a braided lanyard around my neck.
My head popped into open sky.
I could see my whole world from up here. Our house looked like a wooden bird that had crashed into the hillside. My dad built it with his own hands before I was born. He says our house is “in harmony with nature.” I say it’s weird to have a closet hacked from brownstone and a tiny trickle of a stream cutting through the middle of our kitchen during the rainy season.
Up the hill from my house, at the end of a skinny dirt footpath, I spotted my beehives, a row of white wooden boxes stacked like suitcases.
I love my bees. They turn the world into a taste.
When I stick my finger into a fresh comb bursting with honey, I can taste the globe mallows that tickle my neck when my little sister and I lie sprawled on our backs behind the barn, eating sticky jelly beans from my secret stash, and I can smell the purple lupine that explodes across the fields around my house after a spring thunderstorm. I swear I can even feel the cool breeze hitting the brittlebush in the heat of summer.
And while Cathleen’s prose is the first thing you notice, you quickly slip into her story, forgetting to notice the individual words, and instead immersing yourself in Billie’s world.
Billie is a fantastic protagonist. She’s smart, curious and a bit headstrong. Sam is a bit more of a mystery that unfolds as The Pumpkin War progresses.
The Pumpkin War is a quick-moving novel full of humor and heart. It’s a great contemporary choice for this summer.
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