The Pumpkin War

About the Book

     At the end of every summer, Madeline Island hosts its famous pumpkin race. All summer, adults and kids across the island grow giant, thousand-pound pumpkins, then hollow one out and paddle in it across the lake to the cheers of the entire town.

Twelve-year-old Billie loves to win; she has a bulletin board overflowing with first-prize ribbons. Her best friend Sam doesn’t care much about winning, or at least Billie didn’t think so until last summer’s race, when his pumpkin crashed into hers as she was about to cross the finish line and he won. This summer, Billie is determined to get revenge by growing the best and biggest pumpkin and beating Sam in the race. It’s a tricky science to grow pumpkins, since weather, bugs, and critters can wipe out a crop. Then a surprise visit from a long-lost relative shakes things up, and Billie begins to see her family, and her bond with Sam, in a new way.

Classroom Connections

The Pumpkin War can be included in several different curriculum units and discussions:

  • STEM Learning: Farming is a Science
    • As Billie and Sam grow their pumpkins they are very careful about the growing process. As you read, grow your own class pumpkins! Like Billie, keep a classroom pumpkin growth chart, and have students record the measurements as the seedlings grow.
    • “If you want to grow a giant pumpkin, you practically need to be a pedologist. . .  Since we live near the lake, we have sandy soil, so I have to dump in lots of peat moss, buckets of coffee grinds to jack up the nitrogrn, powdered seaweed to add copper, and phosphorus, molasses to smother everything in calcium and magnesium, and liquid vitamin B, for root Growth.” (pg. 15) 
      • Discuss with your class how Billie makes sure that her pumpkins are growing at at optimal rate. What conditions does she try to avoid?
      • Research the minerals that she looks for in the soil (mentioned in the above passage). How do these minerals support the growth process?
      • Explore Pedology, the study of dirt. Have students explore the grounds around your school or a nearby park and collect samples of dirt to examine back in the classroom. Have them observe the color and consistency of the dirt, and make a Hypothesis about how well a plant would be able to grow in the dirt. Students can then test their hypothesis by trying to sprout seedlings in their dirt samples.
    • In addition to growing pumpkins, Billie is very diligent about taking care of her bees, and selling their honey. Learn about the importance of bees to the environment with these online articles and video resources:
      • Why are bee colonies in danger:
  • Character Development
    • The Pumpkin War is a friendship story. Sam and Billie are competing with each other for most of the story. Discuss with your students the pressures of competitions that can help or harm friendships. Identify situations in which they might be competing- like at recess or in a spelling be. What are ways they can be friendly competitors and remain supportive of their classmates in these situations.
    • In the beginning of The Pumpkin War, Billie talks about the goal of winning the race: ” ‘Life isn’t about winning, Billie.’ I didn’t say anything. Because it is about winning, and everyone knows it. Even grown-ups know that. That’s why they don’t cheer when you lose.” (pg. 8)
      • Discuss with your students the expectation of winning. Can they apply Billie’s feelings about the importance of winning to a situation in their lives? Is winning the ultimate goal to aspire to?
      • How does Billie’s focus on winning change through out the course of the book. Does she still think that life is about winning?
  • Pumpkin Boat Races are real!
    • Watch these videos about boat races that actually happen around the world:

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Cathleen young’s characters will forever have a place in my heart.“- Holly Goldberg Sloan, author of Counting by 7’s

“[Billie’s] refusal to appease or to sweeten her demeanor makes for a refreshingly bold female middle-school protagonist. There’s both warmth and realism in the depiction of her family (pre-baby dad prepares daily home-cooked breakfasts, post-baby parents shout over who should change the baby), and Young draws from elements of Billie’s Irish heritage and her Ojibwe heritage (Young’s note explains she consulted with an Ojibwe leader and historian). . . Madeline Island is the picture of idyllic pastoral life, making this an easy pick for fans of quaint small-town drama.” – Bulletin

“Madeline Island provides a lush setting…The details of Billie’s everyday life…are evocatively described. Billie herself is a refreshingly flawed character with lots of room to grow and change. A compelling coming-of-age story.“—Booklist


Meet the Author

Like Billie, Cathleen Young grew up fishing on lakes with her father. After writing for magazines and serving a stint as a police reporter, she started writing for television, everything from soap operas to shows like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and MacGyver. She has over a dozen television movies to her credit, including the award-winning A Place for Annie. A former recipient of the Humanitas Prize, Young is now the executive director of Humanitas, where she launches up-and-coming television writers. She lives in Santa Monica with her twin daughters and her husband. Visit her online at and on Twitter at @CathleenWrites.

Random House Teachers and Librarians