Pumpkinheads begins, as many great pop culture stories do, with a crush. Each fall, high school seniors Deja and Josiah work at the Succotash Hut at their Nebraska pumpkin patch. And for the whole season, Josiah pines for a girl who works at the nearby Fudge Shop. Romance comes easy to the charming Deja, so she decides to use her powers to help Josie get the girl. On their last-ever evening at the patch, Josie and Deja go rogue in the name of love.
Pumpkinheads, out August 27, is like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off set in a pumpkin patch, Nebraska style. There, a “pumpkin patch” an elaborate autumn-themed celebration that is part amusement park, part county fair, and part food festival. “Pedal cars, tricycle races, pony rides, golf, laser tag, pig races, dog tricks — I could keep going,” author and Nebraska native Rainbow Rowell tells Refinery29. She and illustrator Faith Erin Hicks visited Vala’s, one of Nebraska’s biggest pumpkin patches, to create their own whimsical, exaggerated version. “That trip was very important to the look of the book,” Hicks explains.
YA legend Rowell has set many beloved books in her home state of Nebraska, including her bestselling debut Eleanor & Park. But with Pumpkinheads, the state and one of its most charming traditions come to life, thanks to Hicks’ vibrant illustrations. Whereas Josiah and Deja exist in an old-fashioned pocket of pop culture (none of the characters pull out their phones even once), Hicks and Rowell’s love story is more modern. After fangirling over Twitter, the two authors were brought together by Macmillan’s graphic novel imprint, First Second.
Our advice is to read Pumpkinheads fast, then again slowly. Find out what happens to Deja and Josiah, but be sure to catch the whimsy and detail Hicks embeds into every frame.
We spoke to Rowell and Hicks about creating characters, crushes, and Nebraska.
Refinery29: Rainbow, did you grow up going to Nebraska's pumpkin patches?
Rainbow Rowell: "No. I’d always heard of pumpkin patches, but I was really judgy about anything in Omaha. If someone was like, Have you been to this cool thing in Omaha? I’d be like, Whatever, it can't be that cool, it’s in Omaha. My husband owned a laser tag place, and the kids who worked there were excited that the pumpkin patch was opening. I had never been. I was in my late 20s or early 30s. The teenagers said, You gotta go. So I went as an adult, and it blew my mind. Now I buy season passes and go a lot."
I read that your first collaboration idea involved a lot of animals. How did you come up with Pumpkinheads?
Rowell: "We said yes to this without knowing what the idea would be. I initially pitched Faith an Alice in Wonderland fantasy story."
Faith Erin Hicks: "It was a cool story idea. But it had magical animals in it, and I'm not comfortable with drawing animals. I was happy to put work into learning to draw animals. When she gave me the first draft of Pumpkinheads, I was like, This is perfect. This is exactly what I want to draw. The script felt like it had been made for me, [because[ she’d written it with me in mind as an artist. It’s wonderful."
What about Pumpkinheads was made for you, Faith?
Hicks: "All of the wonderful emotion between the characters, that’s my favorite thing in the world to draw. I pay attention to character acting. I’m a fairly quick artist, I can draw comics quickly. Sometimes I’ll spend an hour drawing a character’s eyebrows over and over, trying to indicate the right level of emotional nuance."
That is the perfect transition to talk about our characters. I love Deja! I loved seeing a girl who’s good at dating andconfident. How did Deja come to you, and how did you create her on the page?
Rowell: "We all love Deja so much! I always feel like I need to say nice things about Josiah. Deja is inspired by my best friend. She’s super charismatic and the sort of person who makes friends with everyone, everywhere you go. Josiah is more like Faith and me, more introverted and nervous about social interactions. Josiah has a crush on a girl and for two years doesn't talk to her— that’s something I’ve done. That seems totally normal to me."
Hicks: "Rainbow told me in the beginning that Deja was beautiful. But, when I first started drawing comics, I wanted to draw women who were different than the ones in comics I'd grown up with — women who were unconventional looking with strong feature and powerful bodies, or weak bodies that were different looking. It was a challenge to make Deja beautiful. I never approached a character from that POV. I’d never drawn delicate eyelashes around a female character’s eyes because that can be a feminizing cliche. It was a different experience, writing a character who was beautiful right from the get-go. It's caused me to think more about portraying female beauty on the page."
Deja is incredibly confident and has dated half the pumpkin patch. She's also curvy. Can you talk to me, Rainbow, about her body and personality are in conversation?
Rowell: "Faith likes fighting the patriarchy with her characters. Deja's gorgeous, but she’s an unconventional female character. I wanted this attractive, charismatic, adorable character — and often our shortcut for that is to make her small. I tend to write people who are wrestling with their bodies. She’s tall and she has a big frame, fat on her body. I wanted to free Deja and let her be this person who is confident, who other people like, and who doesn't go through the world apologizing. You don’t usually see a fat girl at ease with herself. Often when someone is so comfortable with who they are, other people find them attractive."
This book is really an ode to a crush — and what crushes are like as a teenager. What's the power of a crush?
Rowell: "I always had spectacular crashes. I had crushes that became a part-time job. If you knew me in high school and college, I would have crushes on people and would change my whole schedule to make sure I’d see that person. I'd given them nicknames. Then, I’d almost never act on the crushes. I didn’t see myself as someone who got to have that — I wasn't pretty or thin enough. So, one way of dealing with it is that I’d always have this crush, and it would be elaborate and funny. I think I gave that part of myself to Josiah."
What do you think happens to them after?
Rowell: "We find out in the book that they’re work friends — only friends during the patch season. They haven’t made that transition. One important thing that happens is that they talk about it. You believe they'll be real friends after this book is over."
This interview was edited for clarity and length.