MARKING A MILESTONE: Local artist Anita Benarde, shown in her garage-turned-studio at Canal Pointe, fondly recalls “The Pumpkin Smasher,” the much-loved children’s book she wrote and illustrated 50 years ago while her children were growing up in Princeton. (Photo by Bob Harris)
By Anne Levin
When artist Anita Benarde came up with the children’s book The Pumpkin Smasher back in 1972, she was working from experience. Benarde didn’t have to look further than her family’s Cuyler Road neighborhood to come up with the story and illustrations about a nocturnal mischief-maker who destroys all of the Halloween pumpkins in town.
The town in the book is Cranbury, but the inspiration was clearly Princeton. “There was an actual pumpkin smasher,” said Benarde, who sounds much younger than her 96 years in a telephone interview. “It’s true. We never found out who it was. We thought it was a boy who had walked around the neighborhood on crutches, but we never did anything about it.”
The book was a hit — so much so that Benarde’s original illustrations, proofs, editor’s notes, and correspondence she had with readers landed in the collection of the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University. A smaller paperback version of the book is currently available from Amazon.com, and hardcover editions have become collectors’ items.
In the preface to the paperback, which was published a decade ago, Benarde wrote that she decided to reissue the book after her grandson had done a Google search. “What he found amazed him,” she wrote. “For so many people, The Pumpkin Smasher was a precious childhood memory ‘big time’ and they wanted it for their children. Zach’s search also showed that many across the country had grown up reading it with their parents, or had heard a teacher read it to them. After hearing about the interest, I was shocked. I had to reissue it.”
Benarde grew up in Brooklyn. “My family was very musical, very theater-conscious and artistic,” she said. “When we first moved to Princeton, I was very conscious of McCarter Theatre and the programs they had there, especially for kids. That was fantastic. Also, I was a member of the Princeton Artist Alliance.”
With her husband, 99-year-old retired epidemiologist and author Melvin Benarde, Benarde now lives in Canal Pointe. Despite some physical infirmities, she remains as active as she can. She is still represented by New York’s RoGallery. After listing the many places Benarde’s artworks have been displayed, the gallery website concludes, “It is safe to say that Princeton has provided an air of inspiration, imagination, and encouragement that kick-started 60 years of creativity that hasn’t ceased, even now in her 90s. The volume, breadth, and depth of her creations in oils, acrylic, watercolors, pen and ink, woodcuts, monotypes, handmade paper, and book covers and illustrations are her homage to art.”
Benarde set The Pumpkin Smashers in Cranbury rather than Princeton “because Princeton sounded a little bit too intellectual,” she said. “It made an impression on me that Cranbury was nearby. I thought it was more poetic.”
The book was “just an idea I had,” Benarde said. “I had three school-age children, all involved in Halloween. Just like in the book, I painted a rock to look like a pumpkin. There were two children who lived next door who put ghosts in the trees. And like in the book, we had a bully, and a person of color.”
After securing a publisher, Benarde worked with children’s book author and editor Margery Cuyler, who happened to live in Princeton. “It turned out that we worked together at the oldest building in Princeton, the Barracks,” she recalled. “It was a different time, of fun and friendships and going out and greeting people face to face.”
But Benarde is not one to dwell in the past. The paperback version of The Pumpkin Smashers is dedicated to her grandchildren Zach, Erica, Jacob, Hillary, Michael, and Shirah.
“It’s so exciting that people are still interested in the book,” she said. “I’m so glad it is still important today. It would be wonderful to sell a lot of copies. My grandchildren certainly could all use the cash.”