There’s abundant warmth, humor, and heart in this charmer, and readers will root for both characters and pumpkin. A winning debut. —Kirkus (starred review)
In a warmhearted debut novel, Hill shows what happens when a serious-minded girl is forced to reevaluate her priorities and reach out to others…Offering distinctive characters, a relatable plot, and some useful gardening tips, Hill’s story promotes connectivity in neighborhoods and communities. —Publishers Weekly
The book is a bittersweet tribute to the experience of growing up in a close-knit neighborhood; characters are written with care and depth…Fans of Sharon Creech’s Moo and other books about intergenerational friendship will enjoy this book. —School Library Journal
Please tell us about your book.
Giant Pumpkin Suite is about a neighborhood—kids of all ages, four generations, neighbors who get along, and neighbors who don’t. When the book starts, there’s not a lot of connection between the neighbors, except for the Brutigans and Mr. Pickering. But events transpire…. One of those events is the growing of a giant pumpkin (we’re talking giant, as in well over one thousand pounds), which winds up being something of a neighborhood effort. Another is an accident that changes the summer plans, at least—and maybe the life—of Rose Brutigan.
Rose and her twin brother, Thomas, are the main characters. They’re twelve, but in very different spots for being twelve. Rose is nearly six feet tall and can’t seem to stop growing, left-handed, way ahead in everything, and pretty wrapped up in practicing for an upcoming cello competition. Thomas is four-foot-six and hasn’t started growing, right handed, not so ahead of his peers (and totally unconcerned with being ahead), and very wrapped up in growing a giant pumpkin with Mr. Pickering, their next door neighbor. They are very different kids, but quite close, nonetheless.
It’s a summer of fresh-squeezed lemonade, mail-order worms, lots of change and challenge, bright green vines and a deep orange pumpkin, new friends, tap dancing and classic musicals, Charlotte’s Web, and GROWTH for all (not just the pumpkin!).
What inspired you to write this story?
I was incredibly inspired by a co-worker’s tales of his adult son growing a giant pumpkin in his backyard. One seed, one pumpkin, in a tiny urban backyard. He was competing against people who had fields of giant pumpkins and could choose their biggest at the time of competition. I was completely smitten by the one-seed-one-pumpkin idea as a plot. And so I started the book as a story completely focused on giant pumpkins—a couple of kids, with the aid of the old man next door, plant one seed in their totally inadequately-sized backyard…and gigantic wonders ensue!
I wrote chapters and chapters about the ins and outs of growing giant pumpkins. And then one of my writing teachers told me that I needed something else going on in the story. Pumpkins—even giant ones—couldn’t carry the whole book, she said. I was fairly devastated by this news. And flummoxed as to what else I could add to what I thought was already a fascinating story about giant pumpkin growing.
After I quit moaning and whining, I figured the easiest thing to try would be to add another competition that could run alongside the giant pumpkin growing competition. So I added a competition about something I knew almost nothing about—J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites. I love the cello. I do not play the cello, however. I’ve always wanted to learn—perhaps I still will. But I can’t really remember a time I didn’t adore Bach’s Cello Suites. (Great study/homework and writing/working music!) So, I decided to add a competition around the playing of those cello suites. This necessitated lots of research, but it was so fun for me—I love learning about new things.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
I needed a lot of experts for this book. I needed cellists who could tell me the details of cello practice and performance. (I knew a few, thank goodness!) I needed a giant pumpkin grower to talk with me about worms and blossoms and leaves and vines. (I only knew one!) As the story became more involved I added more experts: a librarian, a doctor, a luthier who builds and repairs cellos, someone who could advise me on Japanese tea ceremonies…. So many things I knew nothing about!
I knew some of these folks, though most of them not terribly well. I was simply bold and called them to ask for help. Everyone said yes! Some I did not know—they were contacts of friends and family. When I put the call out (“Hey, does anyone I know happen to know a luthier? How about a hand surgeon?) people generously introduced me to exactly the people I needed. These experts recommended wonderful books and resources, sent me pictures and videos, explained and re-explained…but what they really did was give me a sort of hotline to call with questions—ignorant, odd, or silly questions were welcomed! My giant pumpkin expert answered questions for six years straight….
These people were also incredibly encouraging and kind. When I was dragging and losing faith, they were cheering me on. I could not have written the book without them.
What are some special challenges associated with introducing topics your audience might be unfamiliar with?
I really felt like I was probably introducing my readers to two subjects they likely knew little or nothing about: giant pumpkins, and Bach’s Cello Suites. Now, giant pumpkins are easily recognized as fascinating, but most people have no idea the incredible amount of work it takes to grow one. I had to work hard at giving enough information to make things clear and interesting…but not go overboard and make this a How-To-Grow-A-Giant-Pumpkin book instead of a novel. It was a tricky balance.
The Bach Cello Suites were even trickier to introduce. I love this music, but I love classical music in general and know something about it. When I was writing about Rose practicing and the suites themselves, I had to keep asking myself, “What is fascinating about this—why does Rose love these suites?” I did a lot of research on those suites to find some tidbits that might draw in a reader who was not immediately or easily interested in all-things-Bach. Introducing Bach’s love of numbers and cyphers and puzzles was a part of that. And I hoped Rose’s emotions around the music she played would somehow transfer to the reader even if they’d never heard the suites before.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
There’s a lot of STEM/STEAM potential with Giant Pumpkin Suite. The growing of the giant pumpkins has a ton of gardening, chemistry, biology, genetics etc. wrapped up in it. Rose is a math lover and the link between music (especially Bach) and math is a thread throughout the book. Also, at the state fair, a probability problem rears its real-life head—Rose “saves” them because she understands how probability works.
Very fun side-explorations could be done around classic musicals, tap dancing, Japanese history and culture, Bach, stringed instrument building, jazz music, and Charlotte’s Web.