Humor, agriculture and young love all come together in Joan Bauer's first novel, set in rural Iowa. Sixteen-year-old Ellie Morgan's life would be almost perfect if she could just get her potentially prize-winning pumpkin to put on about 200 more pounds—and if she could take off 20 herself...in hopes of attracting Wes, the new boy in town.
About the Author
Joan Bauer is the author of thirteen books for young readers.Joan's first novel, Squashed, won the Delacorte Prize for a First Young Adult Novel. Five novels for young adult readers have followed: Thwonk, Sticks, Rules of the Road (LA Times Book Prize and Golden Kite), Backwater and Hope was Here (Newbery Honor Medal). The Christopher Award was given to both Hope was Here and Close to Famous, which also received the Schneider Family Book Award. Joan is the recipient of numerous state awards voted by readers.
School Library Journal says, “When it comes to creating strong, independent, and funny characters, Bauer is in a class by herself.”
Joan Bauer lives in Brooklyn, New York. Visit her at www.joanbauer.com.
Read an Excerpt
By JOAN BAUER
speakCopyright © 1992 Joan Bauer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI was preparing secret booster solution of one part buttermilk, two parts Orange Crush, and about to inject it into the thick stem of my world-class Big Max-technically a variety of squash, but often the winner in giant pumpkin contests. I called him Max for short. He was the biggest squash I had ever grown-107 inches wide around his middle-which put him over 300 pounds, approximately. Awesome was the only word for it, especially since this was only August. We had forty-six days to go until the Rock River Pumpkin Weigh-In and Harvest Fair, where I, at sixteen years of age, am the only teenager ever to enter the adult growing division. I was facing heavy competition for the blue ribbon from Cyril Pool, four-time Weigh-In champ and a deeply despicable person. If I didn't win I was sure I'd die, which was why I couldn't bother with anything else right now.
I stirred my booster solution to get it good and frothy and let the long tube attached to Max's stem carry the mixture to his core. This would, hopefully, make him more intensely mammoth, which is what growing giant pumpkins is all about. That, and absolute courage.
I patted Max, who gurgled happily, and fixed thoughts of victory in my mind. I could see myself acing the blue ribbon from Cyril Pool's grungy hands-bowing to the crowd, who roared their support. Standing proudly as Mrs. McKenna pinned the blue ribbon on me. Waving to the press, saying, "It was nothing, really." Being carried on my classmates' shoulders across Founders' Square, playing it real humble.
My cousin Richard threw his baseball into a nearby bushel basket. Richard's baseball usually showed up before he did, indoors or out. He ran to get it and delivered the news.
"Cyril Pool figures his pumpkin weighs four hundred pounds, Ellie," he said. "I swear."
"Cyril Pool's full of it," I spat back.
"Well, you don't have to believe me," Richard yelled, "but I was there and I saw them measure it with the chart."
"They probably rigged the chart," I said, stroking Max but dying inside. The "chart" was from the World Pumpkin Federation and estimated a pumpkin's weight by its size. I didn't think rigging the chart was possible, but if anyone was low enough to try, it was Cyril.
Richard was not happy about bringing me the news. He threw his baseball high in the air away from him and ran to catch it like he did catching pop flies in the outfield. Richard was a partial baseball star and working hard to become famous.
"Anything could happen," he said. "It's only August."
I hated August because it was hot and muggy and keeping a pumpkin safe took some doing. In August a Big Max could turn on you, just sit there, and that's all I needed. I'd gained seven pounds already from all the butterscotch swirl ice cream I ate while worrying.
"I thought you'd want to know," Richard said, waiting.
"We're having smoked pork chops with sweet corn," I offered. Richard's face went rapturous.
Richard ate with us about four nights a week because his mother (my aunt Peg) had been in a car accident and couldn't get around too well yet and fixed mostly TV dinners. Richard didn't complain about it around me because my mother had died in a car crash when I was eight. My father says that's why I'm twenty pounds overweight.
I am, quite possibly, one of Iowa's great cooks. Everybody says so. Richard would rather eat my cooking than do anything except play baseball, and since we were cousins, it all worked out. I make the best desserts in all of Rock River High, and Richard eats them. I swirl the frosting on top of the cakes and decorate them with walnuts and pecans. Once I made frosting out of powdered sugar and orange juice and put a spiral of orange slices on top of a cake that was packed with rum-soaked raisins. Nobody could believe the taste. I'm starting my diet tomorrow.
My father is anxious for me to lose weight. He says being overweight keeps me from discovering my true potential. He talks that way because he is a motivational specialist who gets paid to remake people's lives. He gives speeches to companies and groups who need to be motivated and can't seem to do it on their own. He makes tapes on success. He's very happy doing this and has changed a lot of people's lives in the greater Des Moines area and made them become more interesting, productive, and self-sustaining. Dad says if I stop being so stubborn he can do that with me.
Dad specializes in difficult cases, which is why he holds out hope for me. His most famous pupil was Warren Bowler, a rotten accountant who got turned around by Dad's tape series, Self-Imaging III. Mr. Bowler believed in himself so much after listening to Dad's tapes that he ran for treasurer of Rock River and won. Dad respected Mr. Bowler's spunk but didn't vote for him. Only God could turn Mr. Bowler into a decent accountant, Dad said, and God had easier things to work on, like world peace. Mr. Bowler was kicked out of office eventually, but managed to leave with his head high, a tribute to motivational therapy.
Dad believes in having Important Life Goals (he says, "A life without goals is a life without direction") and is constantly writing his personal goals down on pads: Finding More Clients, Beating Insomnia, Running Seven Miles in Under Forty Minutes, Learning Japanese. I happen to think this is fine for some people, but for me, I have two goals right now. That's all I can handle, and I don't have to write them down. I want to grow the biggest pumpkin in Iowa and win the ribbon at the Harvest Fair, and I want to lose these stupid twenty pounds once and for all.
I've lost the weight, you understand, probably ten, eleven times, I just keep putting it back. As for pumpkin growing, Richard's news about Cyril's squash was bad, very bad. Cyril always wins because he's thirty-five and doesn't have anything else to do except booster his squashes. I always come in second because I have to take care of the house, cook, go to school, and be a great pumpkin expert. We've tried housekeepers before but they could never cook as well as me.
Dad says he wouldn't give up my dinners for anything and gives me a good chunk extra each week in allowance. My mother was a superior cook, and I make some of her recipes. Her specialty was sweet sausage ragout with homemade noodles. I used to help her roll out the noodle dough and cut the strips myself. Mother taught me a lot about cooking. Whenever I make Mother's recipes I feel close to her, like she's part of the ingredients. Dad gets real quiet and always has thirds.
Richard went home to tell his mother he was staying for dinner, and that's when I started to cry. I really hate surprises, emotional or otherwise, and like most growers try to take the long view. I knew I was crying about Cyril's pumpkin and how life was unfair and I was probably going to come in second again. Miss Runner-Up. Miss Congeniality. I saw myself standing next to Cyril, who always wore all his ribbons pinned on his shirt when he accepted another one. I was smiling and congratulating him and being a big sport, thinking a plague of locusts would fix him good. I was sixteen years old and had never kissed a boy or had a date. I wanted to be pretty, but my hair was brown and boring and hung down my back like yarn. I had great skin, but twenty pounds too much of it. I wanted to be noticed and kept getting ignored. I'd given Max the best months of my life, but now my world-class pumpkin seemed second-rate. My life was passing in front of my eyes, and it was pudgy.
The last time I got this way, Richard reminded me of a few things. "You won the Rock River Young Growers' Competition three times," he said. Which was absolutely true and a great honor, but that, I reminded him, was for young people.
"You are a young person," Richard pointed out.
"But I'm good enough to compete with adults. How am I going to get better if I keep entering contests I already know I can win?" Richard nodded at this and asked when dinner would be ready.
I had stopped crying now and dusted a piece of lint off of Max, ashamed I had doubted him. It was, after all, only August. Forty-six days to go. Anything could happen, as we say in the growing biz.
I grew giant pumpkins because I liked battle, and growing one was an everyday fight. You had to be in it for the long haul. Rain, frost, bugs, and fungus could strike at any time and stop you dead. Only certain growers are cut out to handle this pressure-tough people of steel who can stand against the odds. Richard says giant-pumpkin growers are the spawning salmon of agriculture, since only the strongest make it upstream each year for anything worth mentioning.
Not all vegetables are this draining. Lettuce doesn't bring heartache. Turnips don't ask for your soul. Potatoes don't care where you are or even where they are. Tomatoes cuddle up to anyone who'll give them mulch and sunshine. But giants like Max need you every second. You can forget about a whiz-bang social life.
My father, who looked like Abraham Lincoln and played him in the Abraham Lincoln community play every February, felt I didn't have dates because I spent too much time with vegetables. Dad had a theory on everything-God, world hunger, fast food, why I grew giant pumpkins.
"Don't you see, Ellie," he said, "they're big and round and full-"
I sucked in my stomach. "What's your point, Dad?"
He coughed and went into one of his speeches on how pumpkins symbolize my desire for life's fullness and reaching my full potential. "You should be nurturing yourself, Ellie, instead of this ... vegetable. Spending night and day with a squash is not healthy ... or fulfilling."
"It's fulfilling to me."
"I know it seems that way now, honey," he continued, bending his 6'6" frame over me.
"And it's fulfilling to Max. Look at him, Dad."
My father scowled at Max and stroked his beard. It's hard to cross Abraham Lincoln. Un-American
"It is simply not appropriate to have a relationship with a pumpkin, Ellie. Shall we get you a pet of some kind ... perhaps a dog, a gerbil-"
"I don't want a pet."
I wanted to say that I could use some paternal understanding once in a while. I swatted a fly instead. I wanted to say that he wasn't exactly burning up the dating field either and that maybe social problems ran in the family.
Old Abe gave up for the moment and stood stooped in the field. "I'm afraid your grandmother got you into this," he mumbled, walking away.
Actually, Cinderella got me into this. My grandmother, who I call Nana, had the money. I was five when she took me to see the movie, and I was impressed with the pumpkin's starring role. It was the pumpkin the fairy godmother changed first. Everybody thinks the ballgown came first. Wrong. Cinderella drags the pumpkin over, the fairy godmother says, "Salago doola, menchika boola-bibbidi, bobbidi, boo!" Bang, you have your basic magic coach. She couldn't have done that with a zucchini. It would have looked like a bus. Cinderella needed a royal carriage, not exact change and a seat with gum all over it.
Now, over the years Dad has tried to point out the strength of other vegetables in literature. Jack and the Beanstalk, for example, but as I argued, the beanstalk got Jack in nothing but trouble. The Princess and the Pea is an insomniac's nightmare. I don't think the throne was worth it. Peter Rabbit nearly croaked in the cabbage patch, stumbled home with nausea, heartburn, plus diarrhea, and got grounded.
But a pumpkin-now, there was a vegetable with promise.
So it was a love from the very beginning. They were round, I was round. As Nana said, "There's growing and then there's growing." You throw some carrot seeds into the ground, when it's harvest time you yank them up, and no big deal. But when you grow pumpkins, people notice. Up they come, big, tough, and sturdy. You get respect.
I had read an article in Seventeen about getting along better with your parents, when this whole issue of respect came up. I talked to Richard about how my father didn't respect me. How could we have a relationship without it?
"You could have a bad relationship," Richard suggested, swinging an imaginary bat, which he always did to keep his muscles supple. He was fifteen and a half, but concerned they could go anytime. Athletes are like that.
"I already have a bad relationship with my father," I said. "I want to have a good relationship with him."
"I don't think that's possible."
"Actually," Richard said, swinging to connect with a tricky curve ball, "it is possible. But you'd have to change everything about yourself."
I looked at my pudgy knees and hands, stained from kneeling and digging in the dirt. I thought of my thin, spotless father in his cottons and tweeds who brushed off a chair before he sat on it whether it needed it or not.
"So what's the answer?" I said.
Richard put down the bat and wiped off his hands. "I think, Ellie, that people respect people that are either like them or people they want to be like."
"I think it's a lost cause with your father. Give it up. Be your own person."
"There's got to be something I-"
"Do you have anything in common?" Richard asked.
I thought hard. "Ice cream," I said.
"Then I'd eat a lot of ice cream together and not talk much."
"I'm on a diet."
"You could learn Japanese," he offered, swinging again.
Dad and I sat on the back porch eating coconut ice cream, his favorite. I'd made it by hand with heavy cream, sugar, and lots of Baker's Angel Flake. Dad's face was somewhere in heaven, and my calorie count was enough to sustain a starving Third World nation.
I had wiped Max down with Windex before we went outside so he would sparkle in the moonlight, and placed Dad's favorite chair at just the right angle to catch the gleam.
"Well," I said, "this is nice." My father nodded and kept on eating. "I want you to know, Dad, that I'm starting my diet tomorrow."
"Ellie," he said, dishing out another bowl, "I wish you great luck. If there's anything I can do, I'd like to help. I've had my own battle with weight, of course."
I could hardly remember when he was fat. He was thin now from all that jogging. Two years ago he'd run a marathon at age forty-two and finished in front of a thirty-four-year-old IBM salesman with braces on his teeth.
A wind blew Max's leaves and lifted the summer smells of purple phlox and wild roses. The wild rose was Iowa's state flower, and Rock River yards were full of them, since we had more heart than any town in the state. The stars shone down like sparklers from heaven. Looking south, I could see Lyra (the Lyre), a small constellation that lights the summer sky. A pale blue star glowed at the northern tip.
I pointed: "Vegas out, Dad."
He looked up and smiled. "The fifth-brightest star seen from earth, Ellie." Stars always perked Dad up. He knew all about them and taught me when I was small. We hadn't done much star gazing lately, though, because all of Dad's motivating made him look inside instead of up. I missed it, too. I watched him from the corner of my eye and figured he'd be up half the night again, battling his sleeping dragons. Nana said the hardest part about being a widower is the empty bed at night.
From our back porch I could see frame houses with rows of big yards swallowed up by the moonlight. People here pretty much knew who they were and let their yards say it. This all went out the window when folks became parents of teenagers, since parents of teenagers aren't clear what planet they're on. Hedges go bushy, lawns get grouchy. This didn't happen at my house because I was in charge of the yard. I thought Dad should appreciate that. Being a turncoat grower, he didn't.
Excerpted from Squashed by JOAN BAUER Copyright © 1992 by Joan Bauer . Excerpted by permission.
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