Review: Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

Note: this review contains minor plot spoilers for this book. 

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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!

Summer Reading

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve made a list of books to read every summer. This list often includes all the books I’ve been too busy to read all year, some upcoming releases, some nonfiction on topics that interest me, and lots of fluffy novels to read in the sun.

This year, my list is 32 books long and includes many titles I’ve been absolutely dying to get into from a variety of genres and authors. I’ll be updating this list on the 1st of each month with the titles I’ve read and what I thought of them. Stay tuned!

Maddie’s Summer Reading List

  1. In a Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
  2. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
  3. It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover
  4. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
  5. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
  6. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
  7. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
  8. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
  9. Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
  10. Final Girl by Riley Sager
  11. One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus
  12. Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray
  13. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
  14. Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty
  15. Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
  16. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
  17. The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
  18. Aftercare Instructions by Bonnie Pipkin
  19. The Archived by Victoria Schwab
  20. Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
  21. Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova
  22. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  23. Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
  24. Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
  25. Who Could That Be At This Hour? by Lemony Snicket
  26. March #3 by John Lewis
  27. Cinder by Marissa Meyer
  28. Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
  29. Inivisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel-Smith
  30. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  31. Gemina by Amie Kaufman
  32. The Girls by Emma Cline

Review: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

For my first ever blog post (!!!!), I’d like to expand upon a Goodreads review I recently wrote about The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, a book I really enjoyed despite several initial misgivings.

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Note: this review contains minor plot spoilers.

First, I should mention that I have not read Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, Albertalli’s much-loved debut novel. I do know that this book takes place in the same world, although Simon plays a very small role in this book. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I appreciated from the description that there would be a much-normalized girl/girl romance and lots of schmaltz. I am a HUGE sucker for schmaltz, especially when it comes in the form of two gals falling in love.

What I realized a few pages into the book was this: even I have a threshold for schmaltz, and this book WAY exceeded it right out of the gate. I almost put it down forever only a chapter in. Now, I’m really glad I stuck it out, but it was touch-and-go for a while there.

The plot is, basically: Molly and Cassie are twins. Their two best friends are cool girl Olivia (we know she’s cool because she has blue hair and takes good photos, even though she doesn’t get any characterization beyond that) and far-away cousin Abby (who serves mainly as Molly’s faithful cheerleader via Skype and text). Molly and Cassie have two moms (one is a white Jewish woman and one is a black woman, although we never get much of either background) and a baby brother. One night at a concert Cassie meets Mina, a pansexual Korean girl followed incessantly by two “hipster boys,” one of whom is named Will and one of whom is barely mentioned so I’ve already forgotten his name. Cassie and Mina hit it off, and heart eyes ensue. Molly, who has had twenty-six unrequited crushes, feels distant from her sister as Cassie’s crush on Mina develops. However, Molly herself begins to develop feelings for two different boys in her social circle. The book keeps rolling from there.

From the get-go, I appreciated the characters’ varied backgrounds and experiences, but there’s something really hollow about a white woman writing such a variety of perspectives. We know that Mina is Korean because her parents have a lot of Tiger statues and that’s “a Korean thing” (and we get nothing beyond that). We know Nadine is black because she has dark skin and people thought she was the (white) twins’ nanny when she was out with them as babies. These details are great, and I appreciate that the story isn’t just a “diversity narrative,” but it feels like Albertalli is absolving herself of any responsibility to actually speak to anyone’s experience. It’s a hard line to toe, but this really veers into diversity theatre for me, and I don’t think anyone should be patting the author on the back for representing anybody.

That being said, it felt really good to read a story about two moms and their kids! While this also veered into leery territory sometimes–Nadine driving Molly to go see the White House after the 2015 marriage ruling left me cringing. But their parenting style felt gentle and real and good, and that’s a lot of points in my book.

Tantamount to my enjoyment of this story is Molly’s own struggle to view herself as attractive and worthy of affection. Her process mirrored my own more closely than any other fictional character’s. To me, it’s overly simplistic to define this simply as “a book about a girl with a crush on a boy.” Reviews of this book have ranged from unfettered delight to outright scorn, most of which stems from Molly’s preoccupation with the cute boys in her life. Sure, the book focuses quite a bit on Molly’s crushes, but I certainly remember being a teen girl and loving “crush talk” more than anything else.

This book made me cringe and roll my eyes at times, but it also made me grin in the break room at work and on the train home at night. It’s a warm and fuzzy read in a world where too many books about LGBT+ families focus on tragedy.

Welcome!

Hello! I am so excited to begin this journey as a blogger of all things book-related!

Here I will be posting book reviews, librarian musings, and general thoughts on current events and trends in the book world. Stay tuned!