There is nothing like picking out a book to read sight unseen, jacket cover unread and reviews unsearched and simply because it was a Rebecca Caudill Nominee in 1996. I take my list into the stacks and search for the next novel. Now that I’m mainly searching books published in the early nineties, I can almost guarantee disappointment. You hear the title “Squashed” and certain pictures come into your mind. But then you hold the book in your hand and see an orange pumpkin on the cover. Oh. That kind of squash. How incredibly dull.
How is there nothing like that? Because the author took what could be a terrifically boring topic and made it exciting and suspenseful, touching and meaningful. That’s how.
Did I like it? Um, no, how about loved it.
I am recommending this book to girls and farmers from 5th through possibly 10th grade (reluctant readers). I was surprised to discover that it won the Ninth Annual Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel. It seems a better fit in juvenile, however.
Our main character is 16-year-old Ellie, a junior in high school. She is a grower at heart, but her passion is growing gigantic pumpkins. That is, 15 named pumpkins in all. She started with 30 pounders which prepared her for the giant pumpkins that grew in excess of a hundred pounds. Then those giants prepared her for the Big Max variety of squash, or Max as she calls him, the largest pumpkin in Iowa.
Ellie is a pro and has been competing in the Adult Growers level for the past two years – the first and only teenager to compete in that division. She should be proud that she has finished second only to Cyril Pool, but she is not. She wants to win. And if ever there was an antagonist, it’s Cyril Pool. He’s a “deeply despicable person” and “the air at Cyril’s place [is] polluted with deceit.”
If Ellie’s primary concern is a pumpkin putting the pounds on at an exponential rate, her secondary concern is taking the pounds off of herself at an equally exponential rate. She’d like to see Max put on ten pounds a day, and she’d like herself to take off 20 pounds before the pumpkin weigh-in. Ellie knows she’s not the perfect “girl”. She spends her time in the dirt and cares little for how she looks, but she would like to be the kind of girl that everyone notices when she walks into a room – especially to the new boy in town. Wes doesn’t just grow sweet corn; he is the president of the Agricultural Club at Gaithersville High. Here is a boy that can finally understand her grower’s heart and can appreciate her love for a vegetable. Ellie could certainly use the support of a fellow grower like Wes.
Her father, an Abe Lincoln look-alike AND a motivational speaker, hates the land and could care less if Max is protected from the elements and the squash thieves. He is more concerned with building up Ellie’s self-esteem. What he doesn’t understand is growing an enormous squash takes guts and courage. “Only certain growers are cut out to handle this pressure – tough people of steel who can stand against the odds.” I’M SOLD on Squashed by Joan Bauer!
(This review was first published in May of 2011 in Will Follow White Rabbits but is certainly a perfect suggestion for this time of year. It is equally difficult to grow a small pumpkin apparently!)