Happy Halloween! I have the perfect pumpkin-related book to tell you about today: Me and the Pumpkin Queen, by Marlane Kennedy. This book left me with a smile on my face, and a tiny tear in my eye. It's about a young girl who is obsessed with growing giant pumpkins. Mildred lives in the small town of Circleville, Ohio, where they have the annual Circleville Pumpkin Show, which more than 400,000 people attend each year. (This story is based on a real-world festival and contest, see here.) Mildred's mother died when she was six, leaving behind an unfulfilled desire to grow one of the giant pumpkins that people enter into the annual contest. Mildred, in an effort to please, or be closer to, her lost mother, decides to win the pumpkin contest herself. Here's the passage where Mildred first realizes her mission:
"Daddy must have been thinking the same thing 'cause he said, "Your mama sure got a kick out of those pumpkins. Every year she would say she wanted to try her hand at growing one." He paused, and then his voice trailed off kind of sadlike. "I guess she just never got around to it."
At that very moment those big pumpkins seemed magical." (Page 13)
4 1/2 years later, as the story begins, Mildred is still trying to grow that prize-winning pumpkin. Tending to her pumpkins consumes all of her spare time for six months out of the year (the amount of work required is truly astounding). Her busybody aunt thinks that she's obsessed, in an unhealthy sort of way. But Mildred's veterinarian father supports her in her efforts, as does her one friend, Jacob.
At its simplest, this is a sweet story about a girl trying to do something big and all-consuming as a way of coping with her grief over the loss of her mother. Mildred tends those pumpkins like they are her children, agonizing over them and loving them. It's impossible not to be moved by her.
But what makes the book a joy is Mildred's impish personality and oh-so-dry sense of humor. She'll say outrageous things in this dewy innocent voice, and this keeps the story well away from cloying. Mildred and her dad have to team up a bit against overbearing (though well-intentioned) Aunt Arlene. At eleven, Mildred sees her aunt clearly, and derives joy from teasing her. Here's a small example:
"After we are done eating, Aunt Arlene asks if I want to go anywhere else, since we are in Columbus.
"No, I have to go home and check on my pumpkin plant," I tell her.
I hear a very long sigh coming from Aunt Arlene, which I do my best to ignore. (Page 85)
Mildred is a kid who goes her own way, and doesn't let opposition or ridicule stop her. If anything, opposition causes her to dig in her heels until she gets what's important to her (in a non-bratty sort of way, as someone who is passionate about their beliefs, and utterly secure in her place in the world). Mildred's security comes from her father, who supports her and jokes with her and only occasionally allows himself to be steamrolled by his sister.
Mildred is not particularly interested in being popular with the other girls at school. She says things like:
"Gloria Mathis, the girl who plasters her notebooks with pictures of her actor crush, is a jabberbox, and not to be mean, but honestly, even though lots of girls hang on her every word, I can only stand a few minutes in her presence." (Page 35)
"The rest of the week at school most of the girls are nicer than usual to me. I think it's on account of my new wardrobe. But it's hard for me to act interested back at them. For one thing, I figure I gave them a chance way back when, and they really didn't want to get to know me. Truth be told, I think they still don't want to know the real me. Besides, all I can think about are my seeds. First thing I do when I get home every day is check on them." (Page 53)
What a little budding introvert. I love her country accent, too. Don't tell me you can't hear it, because I surely can.
One interesting thing about this book is the line that the author walks in talking about things like neutering of animals, birthing of calves, euthanizing of sick pets, and pollinating of plants. Mildred is the daughter of a vet, and a budding farmer in her own right. She is completely blase about things like neutering. I think that Kennedy does a nice job of making this part of Mildred's world, without getting into too much detail, or portraying anything that will be directly disturbing for younger readers.
All in all, this is an entertaining story, chock full of interesting information about the art of growing giant pumpkins. Me and the Pumpkin Queen positively brims over with heart and humor. Highly recommended for 7 to 12 years olds (though perhaps best suited to the earlier end of that scale), and especially for kids who have an interest in growing things. Although the main character is a girl, I think that the technical details about growing the pumpkins, the veterinary details, and Mildred's personality will appeal to boys, too. Highly recommended for children and parents.
Publisher: Greenwillow (HarperCollins)
Publication Date: July 2007
Source of Book: A review copy from the author
Other Blog Reviews: Read, Read, Read, A Year of Reading, 3Rs Reading Den
Author Interviews: Rose Kent at Classof2k7, Alice's CWIM Blog
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.