Note: this review contains minor plot spoilers for this book.
Hi, friends! I hope everyone has had a wonderful summer! I’ve been doing tons of reading during my lunch breaks and (meager) down time at home, and I am currently working on a post that will summarize that experience and share some of my favorite and least favorite titles! Before that comes out, though, I wanted to talk about a book I just finished, which I have been dying to talk about with literally every person I see. That book is Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy.
My girlfriend, who is also a children’s librarian, recommended this book to me soon after it came out two years ago. It’s a big deal for a YA book to earn her stamp of approval–she’s delightfully discerning and critical when it comes to material for kids and teens–so I shuffled it up my “To-Read” list accordingly. I finally picked it up from the library, however, when I found out that there’s going to be a film adaptation coming out soon.
Guys, I am so glad I did.
For those of you who don’t know, Dumplin’ is about a teenage girl named Willowdean Dickson who lives in Clover City, Texas. Will is fat, and unapologetically so, although she does struggle with insecurities and fears related to how other people perceive her body. While the press around this book focuses on Willowdean entering a beauty pageant to combat those insecurities, the real story of Dumplin’ is that of Will’s relationships with her friends and family. She has a thin and beautiful best friend named Ellen, a crush on the cute guy at work, and a beloved aunt who passed away six months prior, leaving her alone with her emotionally distant mom. This story could have easily focused entirely on the details and intrigue of the pageant Miss Congeniality-style (minus the whole “undercover spy” angle), but the depth and richness of the book really lies in how Will relates to the people in her life.
The two things I appreciated most about Dumplin’ were 1) the interesting details we get about even minor characters, and 2) the clarity and care the author dedicates to Clover City as a setting. I’m fascinated by the ways an author describes and illustrates where their story takes place, and it’s obvious that Julie Murphy dedicated a lot of love and energy to Clover City. Something as simple as describing the location of The Chili Bowl relative to Harpy’s (two fast food joints that feature prominently in the story) made me feel like I could really drive around this town. Similarly, characters that could have been flat stereotypes–the ugly loser, the cute jock, the evil stepmother–all get personalities, complexities, and their own inner lives. I was particularly struck by the parents, who so often get used as cheap plot devices in teen novels. When Mitch’s father chooses to eat dinner in front of the television, or when Willowdean runs into Bo’s family at the mall, I felt like I was peeking back in time at real interactions I could have had with the parents of my friends, who always loomed large in my life. It was so refreshing for every character to feel like someone I could actually know.
Aside from the parts of Dumplin’ that impress me from an adult reader’s perspective, this book also gets at deeper, more emotional parts of me. Something I keep coming back to with newer YA titles, which I also mention in my review of The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, is this question:
how would this book have affected me when I was a teenager?
I think any adult reading YA without this question at the forefront of their minds is totally missing the point. Ultimately, our opinion of YA, however loudly expressed in review journals or on Twitter, cannot outweigh the needs and interests of real-life teens. For me, Dumplin‘ would have been absolutely life-changing. A fat protagonist pushing back against her mother’s disappointment and fear, kissing cute people, and forging genuine friendships with other girls? I want everyone between the ages of 13 and 17 to wake up with a copy of this book under their pillow tomorrow. I really do.
One last note: after I finished reading this book, I Googled Julie Murphy to find out more about her work. I learned that not only was she a librarian like me, she’s also from my hometown (Bridgeport, CT). As if that wasn’t inspiring enough, she also wrote her first novel during NaNoWriMo, a challenge which I have attempted to complete, in some form or another, every November for the past ten (!!) years. Like many bookish folks, it has been my dream to write a novel for my entire life, and I think I finally have a story floating around in my brain that’s worth exploring. So in the year of our Lord 2017, I’m going to really buckle down and do the dang thing. NaNoWriMo 2017, here I come! Thanks for the inspiration, Julie Murphy!