Julie Murphy, author of the YA novels Dumplin’, which was adapted for film by Netflix, its follow-up, Puddin’, and the standalone Ramona Blue, arrives on the middle grade scene with Dear Sweet Pea, the story of seventh grader Patricia “Sweet Pea” DiMarco. The story follows Sweet Pea as she finds herself involved with the local advice column while navigating her own changing relationships. Murphy spoke with PW about finding herself as a reader and writer, shifting from YA to middle grade, and telling stories that center fat characters with rich lives.
Have you always known that you wanted to write novels?
No, is the short answer. I wasn’t much of a reader growing up. I have fantastic parents that I love, but they were hardworking, blue-collar parents who didn’t have time to come home and read to me. It was more about putting food on the table, putting the kids to bed, and starting the whole thing over the next morning. Reading, while something I enjoyed, wasn’t really a priority. When reading isn’t a huge priority, writing isn’t a huge priority. Even into my high school years, I never really gravitated towards writing because it felt so much like homework. I appreciate my teachers from high school, but so many of them really ruined reading and writing and took the joy out of it for me. It wasn’t until college that I started to figure out it was something that I might actually enjoy. It was the first time that I gave myself permission to explore reading and writing without any type of academic burden or pressure.
You’ve probably talked to a lot of writers that say that as soon as they could walk, they had a pen in their hand, but it wasn’t like that for me. It was a much slower thing I discovered over time.
Was it clear from the start that you were interested in writing for a YA audience?
I was going to school for political science, so whatever I was writing for fun had nothing to do with what I was learning. I loved reading, but the thing that I really loved the most was movies. I found myself playing with screenplays for a little while and, when the Twilight series came out, I also found myself really interested in being a librarian for teens. I started to think about how I loved coming-of-age stories and what was so special and magical about those moments for me. That’s when it started to happen.
Has the success of Dumplin’ affected your writing?
I think that it’s really helped me think of my books in a more three-dimensional way. That has changed for sure, but I don’t think that it’s changed how I write. I try not to overthink things or worry about whether it will be of interest to the film world, but I do know that I was working on Puddin’ as the movie was filming, so it was really cool to see those characters come to life while I was writing about those characters again. It wasn’t something I planned for because we really didn’t know if the Dumplin’ movie was happening until it was happening, ya know?
Why, after four young adult novels, did you decide to write a middle grade novel?
I’ve wanted to write a middle grade novel for a while and I was waiting for the time, contract-wise, where I could write it and my time wasn’t spoken for. I was also waiting for the right story. I was feeling a little bit of burnout on YA, too. Nothing felt fresh or exciting. The thing that was really exciting to me was the idea of Sweet Pea and her story.
I got excited about writing for a younger audience after seeing the response to Dumplin’ and how it really impacted teens and adults and how it was shaping their conversations. I don’t think my books are these huge powerful things, but it made me wonder what it would mean to start that conversation even sooner. If these conversations that people were having with the teens in their lives, if we could just have that conversation a few years earlier, what impact might that make?
Did writing for a middle grade audience affect your writing process? Did it challenge you in different ways?
I fell into it easily. At the same time, it wasn’t like I just unplugged the YA part of my brain and plugged into the MG part. It wasn’t that easy, but I think part of me foolishly hoped that it would be. There was retraining and rethinking that I had to do mentally to reframe my perspective. When a teenager is in trouble, who do they go to? When a child is in trouble, who do they go to? What changes as far as authority figures and how we respond to those authority figures? At what age do kids lose that unerring faith in adults and what does it feel like to experience the first cracking in that faith? What is it like to recognize that your parents aren’t as perfect as you thought they were? I needed to remember those early discoveries that are a little tragic but humanizing, too.
Do you hear specific feedback or responses to your choice to tell the stories of fat girls? Why do you feel it’s important to tell these stories?
My readers had me first thinking about it, but also my nieces, who Dear Sweet Pea is dedicated to. They’re in kindergarten and second grade and hearing them talk to me about my body and their bodies, especially once they started going to school, made me realize what a great advantage it was to know them so early in life and get to talk to them about their bodies and how all bodies are good bodies. Smaller doesn’t mean better, bigger doesn’t mean better: it’s a neutral thing. I swim with my nieces almost every day in the summer and my youngest niece once said, “Auntie Julie, why is your leg so much bigger?” And I said, “Because my body is bigger, and I carry my body around.” As soon as she heard that it was like a lightbulb moment. Like, “Oh, that makes sense”—that’s satisfactory. They’ve really given me a lot of insight.
I was fortunate to get to write a book like Dumplin’ that was so centered on bodies and what it is like to exist in a fatter body. I think writing that book gave me a little bit of personal license to feel I can write a book like Dear Sweet Pea, where the main character is fat, but it’s not the main thing she’s contending with. She’s still trying to navigate her world with her body and what that means, but she’s got a lot going on. I think that was the case in Dumplin’ and Puddin’, too, but bodies and body image was much more centralized in those books. I’m excited to get to write this fat character who is just trying to figure out how to exist as a seventh-grade girl.
Do you feel something is finally shifting in the publishing world—or perhaps in larger society—that makes it possible for stories like Sweet Pea’s to be told? That is, stories where the characters are fat, but that isn’t their defining feature or their entire identity?
I do see it happening, especially on the publisher side. My editor is completely on board with fat characters and stories that don’t necessarily center their bodies or fatness; these characters are just living their lives. If I had to guess, though, I think we are going to have to do some training with readers. Maybe training isn’t the right word. But, we’ll have to allow for a time when readers adjust to these characters and stories. I just received an email from a reader who expressed how much she loved Dear Sweet Pea, but said that she was disappointed that the book didn’t deal more with body image. On the one hand, I get that, because there is a need or want for educators to have a book to put in a reader’s hands and to be able to easily say, “This book is for this.” There’s something incredibly powerful about just having fat characters who exist in the world just like every other character does. So, yes, I think publishers are ready to work with these stories, but it’s going to take some time for the general public to catch on. That said, we also need more fat people writing stories.
What was your experience writing for The (Other) F Word anthology, edited by Angie Manfredi? Why was this essay important for you to share?
I’ve known Angie for a long time and have admired her as a librarian. When I found out that she was doing an anthology and she was interested in me being in it, I was excited, but it always comes down to scheduling. I squeezed in by the skin of my teeth and am so, so happy it worked out. She did an incredible job of not just pulling from the likely suspects in the world of literature; she thought about people doing really important work online, too, and gave them a platform in the world of publishing. All of that is exciting to me.
I’d been wanting to write about Ursula [from Disney’s The Little Mermaid] for a long time. I’ve been in a few nonfiction anthologies now, but I felt like an anthology that so centered fatness and fat people was the perfect place to house an essay about Ursula. If you follow me on social media, you know that I’m obsessed with Ursula; my love for her is long and storied. It was nice to put it all down on paper and to express why she matters to me.
Sweet Pea’s parents’ divorce is notably unique. What was your inspiration for this aspect of the story?
Their divorce isn’t traumatic and there are times when she wishes it was a little bit more traumatic so that she knew how to properly assign her feelings. I purposely wrote it this way not because I have personal experience with that exact set of circumstances, but because I think that we get into our minds that certain things are traumatic no matter what, but they don’t have to be. It’s a bit of a spoiler, but Sweet Pea’s parents are rediscovering themselves in their own right and that is a scary, awful thing, but it’s also joyful in that it’s a moment for her to get reacquainted with her parents and to understand again the framing of the rest of their lives. Divorce and any time a family is renegotiating space is always difficult, but it doesn’t have to be clouded by trauma. It’s something that can be worked through together and felt very deeply and it’s something we can all survive and rely on one another through.
Have you noticed anything different about the YA versus middle grade communities?
It’s so early that it’s hard to say, but I can tell you that I’m always excited to work with my team at HarperCollins, but the team that I’m working with right now is exceptionally excited about this book. I don’t know whether that’s something specific to middle grade, but it’s been a really nice process so far. There’s a grassroots excitement around the book, which is how it felt with Dumplin’. It’s genuine excitement for the book in an organic way.
I am excited to meet other middle grade authors and hear their perspectives on writing for this audience and their experiences with readers. It seems to be a tight-knit and close community, so I’m excited to swim in those waters for a while.
Which authors do you most admire?
I’m amazed by and constantly look to Renée Watson to see how she’s handling her career. She’s incredibly smart and thoughtful; I can’t say enough good things about her. A.S. King was one of the authors who inspired me to start writing books for teens. I remember reading Please Ignore Vera Dietz when I was a young adult librarian; her books always feel so meaty to me. They inspire me to think a little deeper and try a little harder.
What can readers look forward to next?
I’m so excited to be partnering with the comic book company Valiant! They have created an incredible comic book character who I’ve been a fan of for a long time named Faith. Faith is a fat girl and Faith can fly and I’m writing the young adult novels based on her teenage years.
What’s on your to-do list for next year?
I have a very large to-do list. I have to write two—maybe three—young adult novels before this time next year. I also just submitted another really exciting project to my editor. I hope I’ll be able to talk about that soon, but I can say that it’s a new market for me.
Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $16.99 Oct. 1 ISBN 978-0-06-247307-3
This q&a has been adapted from a previous interview.