MARKING A MILESTONE: Local artist Anita Benarde, on display 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 years old, while his children were growing up in Princeton. . (Photo by Bob Harris)
By Anne Levin
When the artist Anita Benarde imagined the children’s book The Pumpkin Smasher in 1972, she was working from experience. Benarde didn’t have to look any further than the family neighborhood of Cuyler Road to find the story and artwork of a nighttime troublemaker who destroys all the Halloween pumpkins in town.
The town in the book is Cranbury, but the inspiration was clearly Princeton. “There was a real pumpkin smasher,” said Benarde, who looks much younger than his 96 years in a phone interview. “It’s true. We never found out who it was. We thought it was a boy who walked around the neighborhood on crutches, but we never did anything about it. .
The book was a success—so much so that the original illustrations, proofs, editor’s notes, and Benarde’s correspondence with readers ended up in the collection of the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University. A smaller paperback version of the book is currently available on Amazon.com, and the hardcover editions have become collector’s items.
In the preface to the paperback, published ten years ago, Benarde wrote that she decided to republish the book after her grandson did a Google search. “What he found amazed him,” she wrote. “For so many people, The Pumpkin Smasher was a treasured “big time” childhood memory and they wanted it for their kids. Zach’s research also showed that many people across the country grew up reading it with their parents or heard a teacher read it to them. After hearing about the interest, I was shocked. I had to re-edit it.
Benarde grew up in Brooklyn. “My family was very musical, very theatrical and artistic,” she said. “When we first moved to Princeton, I was very aware of the McCarter Theater and the programs they had there, especially for children. It 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 the RoGallery in New York. After listing the many places where Benarde’s works have been exhibited, the gallery’s website concludes: “It’s safe to say that Princeton provided an air of inspiration, imagination and encouragement that launched 60 years of creativity that has not ceased, even now in his 90s. The volume, breadth and depth of his creations in oil, acrylic, watercolour, pen and ink ink, woodcuts, monotypes, handmade paper, book covers and illustrations are his homage to art.
Bénarde set The Pumpkin Smashers in Cranbury rather than Princeton “because Princeton seemed a 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-aged children, all involved in Halloween. 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 just 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 publisher Margery Cuyler, who lived in Princeton. “It turned out that we worked together in the oldest building in Princeton, the barracks,” she recalled. “It was a different time, of fun and friendships and outings and face-to-face greetings.”
But Benarde is not one to dwell on the past. The pocket version of The Pumpkin Smashers is dedicated to his 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’s still important today. It would be wonderful to sell a lot of copies. My grandchildren could certainly all use the money.