Every October you walk into your bookstores and your libraries and you see the overwhelming swath of seasonal fare pelt you from every side. Apples and pumpkins, scarecrows and black cats. You begin to wonder if it’s possible to do anything that’s both new and autumnal anymore. Then you turn around and you see the book most likely to make you back away in true, abject fear. Rotten Pumpkin: A Rotten Tale in 15 Voices is basically what you’d get if you took Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices or Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village and turned those bugs and people into molds, slugs, and other creepy crawlies. I have never been so overwhelmed with a desire to wash my hands after reading a book as I have reading Schwartz’s latest. That’s a compliment, by the way.
It doesn’t start off all that badly. On Halloween night a triumphant little pumpkin merrily grins at the reader. “Here I stand, bright with light, proud and round. Tonight is my glory night. Call me Jack.” Its hubris doesn’t last long. The first unwelcome visitor is a chomping chewing mouse. The next a squirrel. Then come the slugs, a fly, and most dramatically the black rot. Once the rot’s set in it’s just a question of how quickly Jack will disintegrate. Schwartz fills his story with plenty of useful information, like the fact that low temperatures don’t slow most of the fungi that eat pumpkins. Or the strange nature of the plasmodium and its odd ways. By the end we see how life begins anew, thanks in large part to the creatures that help with decomposition. A glossary of terms and useful “Classroom Investigations” are found at the end of the book.
When we think of books told in a variety of different voices, our minds instantly think of some of the loftier titles for kids out there. Award winners. Collections of monologues. That sort of thing. So I think it would be particularly refreshing for kids to embody the characters in this book. I’m suddenly envisioning the world’s grossest school play, wherein our hero, the pumpkin, is eaten and devoured by his/her classmates, piece by piece. The characters, if you can call them that, aren’t delineated in the text by anything more than their images. Sections run together without chapter titles. I was also a bit sad that the photos were separate from the text, when it would have been nice to see the two integrated. That said, I did like the writing. It does a good job of telling a story, conveying some really interesting factual information, and grossing you out. Surprisingly, this is the book that actually explained Penicillium to me better than anything else I’ve ever read. Not being much of a scientist I confess that I’d always been a bit fuzzy (no pun intended) on what precisely it is that Penicillium does. I know the story of how it was discovered, but not why it works. Now I do.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint what the most disgusting moment of this book really is. Was it the title page with its leering jack-o-lantern leering, bedecked with a black mustache of pure mold? Was it instead the yeast swimming in the fermenting pumpkin, an almost peach colored jelly packed with white rods? No. For me, without a doubt, the honor lies squarely on the spores. We have photographer Dwight Kuhn to thank for that. Having worked on “more than 140 children’s books on nature and biology”, Kuhn had his work cut out for him when it came to some of the shots in this book. The squirrel was keen, the mouse divine, and the slugs sluggy, but the shot that impressed me the most was the extreme close-up of the fly. *shudder* You’d have to see it for yourself to understand why.
Who says the scariest Halloween books for kids are strictly fictional? With Rotten Pumpkin you’ve all the thrills of a typical horror story, laden with facts along the way. The hero at the top of his game. The downfall. The insidious, frankly disgusting, forces that eat away at him until he’s nothing left but a blackened husk of his former self. Oh, it’s thrilling stuff. With applications in the classroom, in the home, and on the stage, there’s nowhere this rotting corpse of a pumpkin doesn’t belong. So this holiday season don’t bother handing the kids yet another copy of Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark when they beg you for child-friendly horror fare. Just load them down with a little Rotten Pumpkin. Guaranteed to make hypochondriacs out of even the stiffest souls.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- A Little Book of Slime by Clint Twist
- The Dirt on Dirt by Paulette Bourgeois
- Pumpkin Shivaree by Rick Agran, illustrated by Sara Anderson
Other Blog Reviews:
- Mrs. ReaderPants
- The Armchair Librarian
- Second Bookshelf on the Right
- Cozy Little Book Journal
- Kid Lit Frenzy
- Novel Nutritious
Interview: David M. Schwartz answers his own questions about the book.