Today we’re happy to welcome back Ashley Wolff to talk about her latest picture book, How to Help a Pumpkin Grow (Beach Lane Books, 2021).
This delectable charmer about gardening and unexpected friendship is the perfect way to celebrate fall and will definitely make you want to wrap your lips around a piece of freshly baked pumpkin pie. 🙂
The star of this toothsome tale is an amiable, dedicated dog farmer — a handsome border collie modeled after Ashley’s own dog Rufus. Decked out in a red bandanna and matching yellow gloves and boots, Dog eagerly plants his pumpkin seeds in spring, then carefully protects, feeds, weeds, waters, and guards his precious sprouts from any barnyard creatures who may wish to take a nibble.
When hungry Crow eyes up the sprouts, Dog asks him if he wants to “help a pumpkin grow,” so Crow helps with weeding. As time passes and the plants get bigger, Dog also asks Rabbit, Duck, and Goat if they’d like to help too. As the new friends work together, they take pride in vining, twining, and watching their beautiful pumpkins flourish until it’s time to harvest them.
The fun continues as they then gather in the kitchen to “roast,” “toast,” and roll out dough for perfect pumpkin pies. After feasting on them, they happily carve jack-o-lanterns in time for a glowing Halloween.
With its spare, pitch-perfect rhyming text and richly hued and textured acrylic gouache illustrations, How to Help a Pumpkin Grow is sure to become a favorite autumn read aloud (observant munchkins will also love following a wee mouse from spread to spread). With its gentle themes of patience, industry, friendship, cooperation, and pride in accomplishment, this heartwarming story also reminds us that sometimes perceived enemies can turn out to be good friends.
Big thanks to Ashley for stopping by (yes, she’s also sharing a favorite pumpkin recipe). Enjoy!
Where did you get the idea for this book?
Right down the road from me is a small produce farm with an honor system farm stand. Wayne Kingsley is famous for his sweet corn but he grows all sorts of veggies including rhubarb, herbs and pumpkins.
For several years my son Rowan helped Wayne out during the summer by picking beans and corn, driving tractor and harvesting pumpkins. One September day I helped out too and the three of us harvested 96 pumpkins, some as heavy as 30 lbs. We loaded them into the bucket of Wayne’s tractor. MY pumpkin farmer meets a helpful goat willing to pull the cart.
How does your dog Rufus feel about starring in his very own book?
Four years ago I heard about a nearby litter of ½ Border Collie/ ½ Aussie Shepherd pups and went to see them. There were 8 in all, 5 looked like their Aussie mom and 3 like their BC dad. I knew I wanted a girl and luckily 7 of the pups were girls. After an hour of watching them all toddle around I pointed to the one I loved. Of course, he was the only boy!
Rufus is named for Rufus Wainwright, son of Canadian singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III. His name follows my ancestral family dog-naming rule: it must contain 2 syllables and contain the letter U. He has no opinion on his starring role other than it results in increased contact with Wayne.
How does his personality compare with that of your very first border collie Pumpkin?
He is a boy…what can I say?
How did you go about deciding which other animals to include in the story?
Like many stories, this one went ‘round and ‘round the mulberry bush before it emerged in a final version. Every character evolved, including Farmer Rufus, considering that he wasn’t even alive when I first wrote it!
The most notable was the transformation of a donkey to a goat. I wanted a helper capable of pulling a cart and I love donkeys, but my neighbors got two kids and I was enchanted with their faces and personalities, even when they were using Ian as a climbing structure.
Are you an avid gardener? If so, what have you been especially successful at growing?
I’ve loved to garden since childhood when my beloved babysitter and surrogate grandma taught me the rudiments. I moved from zone 4 to zone 9 and back again, adapting as I went.
The one constant through all my gardens from childhood on has been a love of zinnias.
This year’s are looking pretty moth eaten at the moment but they are still my faves.
What was your favorite fall activity when you were little?
Halloween was my autumn obsession.
I was abetted by a very creative mother who was never at a loss for great costume ideas. She made all our costumes and later, made all of my son’s too!
One year my sister and I went as Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette, both carrying our severed heads under our arms!
In the year we lived in West Berlin, Germany my sister Peri dressed up as Jack Frost and I was a Scottish ‘something.’ See our mom in the background?
Were you an artsy pumpkin carver?
Not as a child-it was fun but not my art form!
How did you make the pictures for this book? Please use your favorite spread to show us your process.
I used one of my favorite techniques to illustrate HTHAPG. I use gouache both in a watercolory way with loose, wet on wet washes and in an opaque way when I want to add layers. For the line I used a brownish gray acrylic ink and a fine brush. Particularly on this piece I used pan pastel to deepen the shadows as well as create the impression of candlelight.
Earlier version sketches:
What did you like best about working on this project?
This story has been dear to me for its association with my son Rowan and our friend Wayne. I remember the pumpkin picking day vividly, even a decade later.
It is certainly a comedy, ending in a celebration. I consider this a true “hybrid” picture book. By that I mean that it combines genre elements such as a charismatic main character, has a clear embedded concept, unfolds over a period of time and has an amusing supporting cast.
I plotted it so that, even taking place over a period of months, it progresses from morning to night so it can sit comfortably on the bedtime book shelf too.
Finally, I carefully considered the role of the animals as human stand-ins. In the end, Rufus became the only character who wears any clothing, or acts human in an obvious way.
What do you hope kids will take away from this story?
I’m hoping there is a kid out there who reads this and thinks I want to grow a pumpkin too. I hope she rips up some grass, digs the earth to loosen it, discovers worms and bugs, plants some seeds, feeds and nurtures her plants, and grows a life-long love of messing around in the dirt.
Finally, please share a favorite pumpkin recipe.
I’ve never been a big fan of pumpkin pie. Give me rhubarb or cherry any time. My favorite parts of a pumpkin are the seeds. Toasted seeds have that crunchy, salty, spiciness that I crave. This recipe really guilds the lily and combines salted, toasted seeds with caramelizing and spices.
Spiced and Caramelized Pumpkin Seeds
- 3 tablespoons white sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 pinch (it can be a big pinch) cayenne pepper
- 2 cups raw whole pumpkin seeds, washed and dried
- Olive oil to coat
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons white sugar
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, stir together 3 tablespoons of sugar, the cumin, cinnamon, ginger, and cayenne pepper, and set aside.
Toss the pumpkin seeds with olive oil to coat, place on the prepared baking sheet, and sprinkle with salt to taste. Bake the seeds in the preheated oven until lightly golden, 20 to 25 minutes.
Heat the rest of the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, and stir in the toasted pumpkin seeds along with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Cook and stir the seeds until the sugar forms a coating on the seeds, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir the caramelized seeds into the bowl of sugar-spice mixture, toss to coat, and let cool.
HOW TO HELP A PUMPKIN GROW
written and illustrated by Ashley Wolff
published by Beach Lane Books (July 2021)
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 40 pp.
♥️ Signed copies may be ordered via The Vermont Book Shop.
🎃 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY 🐭
Ashley is generously offering a signed copy of How to Help a Pumpkin Grow for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. To enter, please leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EDT) Wednesday, September 22, 2021. You may also enter by sending an email with PUMPKIN in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!
The lovely and talented Denise Krebs is hosting the Roundup at Dare to Care. Sashay on over there to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up around the blogosphere this week. Have a nice weekend!
*Interior spreads posted by permission, text and illustrations copyright © 2021 Ashley Wolff, published by Beach Lane Books. All rights reserved.
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**Copyright © 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.