Joan Bauer’s Squashed
Putnam – Penguin, 1992

Ellie Morgan, sixteen years old, is our main character in Squashed: “A funny fast-paced book about an ordinary girl with an extraordinary ambition.”

That’s what the New York Times Book Review says about the novel.

And here’s a taste of Ellie, as created by Joan Bauer, with all her ambition on display:

“I woke up at 2:00 A.M. The rain was pounding off the roof.
I pulled on my jeans, grabbed my slicker and plastic sheet, and ran outside to dress Max.
He was soaked through, puddles surrounded him, the ground too wet to absorb all the water.
I dug three runoff channels, slapped on the plastic, and lay over him like a hen covering her brood.
The lightning cracked, the ground rumbled from the thunder.
I figured I must be near crazy to love a vegetable this much.”

You can take a moment to re-read the last line: I would need to too.

Yep, that’s right: Max is a vegetable. An actual vegetable. A pumpkin, in fact. A potentially prize-winning pumpkin.

That’s where Ellie’s ‘extraordinary’ part comes in.

And I figured Joan Bauer’s novel must be extraordinary, as well, because it was recommended in Shireen Dodson’s Books for Girls to Grow On, and Joan Bauer was a Newbery Honor-winning writer (though not for Squashed, but for Hope Was Here). I’ve had good luck with both Shireen Dodson’s recommendations and the Newbery lists, so when I was looking for autumn-themed reads, this one sounded perfect.

But maybe you’re thinking that you don’t especially like pumpkins.

Maybe you’ve had a bad experience with Aunt Trudy’s overly-watery-nowhere-sweet-enough filling. Who knows.

But it doesn’t matter. Put Aunt Trudy’s monstrosity out of your reader’s mind, because Squashed is about a pumpkin, but it’s also not about a pumpkin at all.

“The true test of any vegetable is how it fares in the face of adversity.”

Yep, beneath that orange skin is a layered tale of survival and dreaming-big-against-the-odds. And that’s not just about Max. Nor only about Ellie’s care of Max (which is truly remarkable, involving plastic tarps, electric blankets, hair dryers and oils for sensitive squash skins, among other things). Most of all, this tale is about Ellie herself.

“I weighed 144 pounds and was dreaming about chocolate-chip cheesecake. Max weighed 430 pounds and was dreaming about victory. I hadn’t had any sugar for three weeks and was going through withdrawal — the heavy emotional variety. I watched a Sara Lee pound cake commercial on TV and burst into tears.”

Max might be struggling to be the biggest pumpkin in the county, but Ellie’s struggles in Squashed are much more complex.

And her life-as-a-teenage-girl-sucks difficulties, like dealing with her weight, are compounded by the fact that she has lost her mother. Ellie’s grief is still raw, and sharpened by the fact that she sees her father struggling with the loss as well.

Ellie’s not alone in this, however. Besides her father, Ellie has a network of supporters, like her Nana, who offers the following advice:

“It’s always going to be hard, honey, always going to be a challenge. Dealing with nature’s like dealing with a slippery pig: You just can’t get ahold of it. I could never get that through to your father, he always wanted to be in control.”

So even though Max certainly fills the bulk of the narrative when you’re talking poundage, the story is one about vegetables and humans, coming to terms with a natural order that cannot be controlled, about the organic processes of nurturing and growing and, yes, dying.

Squashed: it’s not just a book about a pumpkin.

How about you: do you like to read your vegetables?

Companion Reads: Katherine Patterson’s A Bridge to Terabithia, Natalie Babbit’s Tuck Everlasting