Fans of Rainbow Rowell will know exactly what to expect when they pick up Pumpkinheads. The author has been carving out her niche in young adult novels and comics, delivering books like Fangirl and (along with artist Kris Anka) the new Runaways. Rowell has worked hard to earn her reputation with fans as someone with a particular skill for writing young people in realistic relationships, both romantic and not. And Pumpkinheads is exactly that.
A lot of Rowell’s work is rooted in characters that feel familiar even before readers encounter them, formed around tropes but freshened up with new relationships and quirks. Pumpkinheads’ Josiah, aka Josie, and Deja are friends that work at the same fall-themed park, complete with fried food, corn maize (pun definitely intended), petting zoo, and the requisite pumpkin patch. Deja and Josie are approaching the end of their tenure at this seasonal job, both of them seniors in high school who don’t expect to come back once they’re away at college. They share an easy camaraderie borne of working together at this kid-focused event.
DeKnock’s World Famous Pumpkin Patch & Autumn Jamboree (as it’s formally known) is filled with a wild cast of characters, both employees and patrons alike. The details of each of their personas and appearances aren’t all that important, but taken as a whole, Rowell and artist Faith Erin Hicks have created a world with depth, breadth, and fun quirks. Hicks’s character designs are firm and distinct, helping to establish the differences between people and the space that they take up. Just like Rowell, Hicks is no stranger to a lot of YA readers; it’s her most recent work in The Nameless City trilogy that garnered the most attention. And also like Rowell, Hicks has skill with character development and stories rooted in real personas, no matter how fantastical the setting. Hicks conveys even simple movements with a lot of kinetic energy, which makes characters leap off the page, lively and engaged. Along with colors by Sarah Stern, it takes Rowell’s work and makes it even more real, even more immersive.
The particulars of Josie and Deja’s last evening at the pumpkin patch are the sort of thing that could easily be featured in any kid’s show. Josie has a crush on a coworker that he’s never even spoken to, and the friends spend their night working through an increasingly ridiculous series of blockers and distractions that keep him from speaking to her now. While hoofing it around the park on their mission, they talk about their plans and their fears, their relationships with others, and even their relationship with each other. It feels deeply familiar and comfortable, but not at all stale. The senses of affection and caring that are evoked come to the forefront, given space to breathe while framed by the type of story that most readers will have encountered before, two friends growing up together and worried about growing apart, happy to spend time together as the world changes around them.
Although there are a slew of books that tell this kind of story, Pumpkinheads is remarkable for it’s grace and the skill of the creative team. Each character is fleshed out and concrete, with Deja in particular given more time and attention than less experienced teams might afford her. It would be easy to reduce her to a sidekick, particularly as she is a young, black, LBGTQ+ woman, and in the hands of a less intentional writer she could have wound up without her own story to tell. Pumpkinheads is solidly constructed, built on a foundation of excellent art and character-driven story, and embraces the things that are most familiar—and often most needed—by its target demographic.