Artist Anita Benarde’s story about a pumpkin began when she and her family arrived in Princeton in October, 1961. The kids were excited about celebrating Halloween. Everyone in the neighborhood joined in the fun.
“Things were different back then,” Benarde says. “Candy didn’t need to be wrapped, spooky music could be heard, and ‘poison apples’ were given to all. Some sang a song, or did a trick before getting a treat; it really was ‘trick or treat.’ It was only natural to see pumpkins on all the lawns a few days before the big day — until one Halloween when all the pumpkins were smashed.”
Says Benarde: “It was a stunner. The kids were devastated, and the parents were so disappointed. Who could have done such an awful thing? Didn’t the bully, whoever it was, know how important the holiday was for everyone? And so, at that moment, memories were born. I just had to write a book and tell everyone the story of how the entire town joined together to deal with the problem.”
Benarde’s illustrated book, “The Pumpkin Smasher,” published in 1972 by Walker & Co., shows how a town cleverly put an end to the mysterious annual vandalizing of dozens of carved Jack O’Lanterns. While Halloween has changed greatly over the years, the themes of “The Pumpkin Smasher” have endured. And so has the book itself. In 2012 Benarde’s grandson Googled the title and found many references, including accounts of the book selling at high prices (compared to its original price of $7.50).
Now Benarde has reissued the book on Amazon (it’s also available at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street). As Benarde says, the book teaches “doing the right thing as individuals, and the value and importance of community to solve problems” — as well as “a lesson in how to deal with bullies.”
Recent interest has come from many corners. An attorney in Pennsylvania asked if he could buy some of the original illustrations for his children. “It amazed me,” says Benarde. Kirkus gave the book a good review. Publishers Weekly noted that “the illustrations are equally charming” and the Chicago Daily News said that “for tiny trick-or-treaters, we suggest ‘The Pumpkin Smasher.’” The book has received 43 positive reviews on Amazon.
Benarde has also received an e-mail from a person in Chicago who wanted to turn it into a television special. A New York Times writer suggested it be made into a movie. In addition, Benarde reports, “the Big Muddy Brewing Company in Illinois bought a dozen copies — they brew a Pumpkin Smasher beer. Who would have believed it?”
In January of this year Benarde received “a request from a TV station in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, asking for permission to read the book on the program — ‘The Pumpkin Smasher.’” More recently the new Fierstein Graduate School of Cinema at City University of New York has said it is developing the “makings” of a Halloween television special based on the book.
While attending a children’s book conference at Princeton University’s Cotsen Children’s Library, Benarde told the curator the story and about all the original items she had saved since 1972. The Cotsen Library took everything and more, Benarde reports.
“Children had become parents, and they wanted it for their children,” says Bernarde, explaining the enduring popularity. “Teachers remembered it and wanted it for their students. They were reliving a happy childhood memory, and they wanted a fond memory for the little ones.”