Quiz time: name a YA novel with an overweight main character. Now, name one whose weight loss doesn’t figure into the plot.
The first question is tough; the second, almost impossible.
“Really, when is the last time you saw a girl with rolls on the cover of a YA book?” asked Alessandra Balzer, who will publish Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’, starring a plus-size heroine, next month. “You rarely see a fat girl on a jacket and, sure as hell, you’ve never seen a fat girl in a bathing suit on a book jacket.”
It’s Murphy’s second novel, following Side Effects May Vary (Balzer + Bray, 2014), but one whose plot percolated in her imagination for years. “I was a big girl growing up – by fourth grade I was already 5’8” or 5’9” – so I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I think every writer has one book that they’ve been working on in their head their whole life, and this is that book for me.”
It arrives at a moment when the cultural notion of what constitutes beauty is receiving considerable pushback. People magazine recently put Tess Holliday, a size-22 social media star, on its cover. A reader campaign, started by an eighth grader frustrated over her fellow ballerinas’ complaints about their weight – got Seventeen magazine to pledge not to digitally alter its cover models into ever-thinner silhouettes. Actress Melissa McCarthy has proved that a big star can draw big box office results.
The topic is so timely that the film rights to Dumplin’ were swept up before Murphy had even met her film agent.
“I was on a conference call to talk to my film agent for the very first time, one of those ‘I’m so excited to be working with you’ kind of calls, and she was late. I remember I was getting kind of annoyed because I had a lot to do,” Murphy recalled. “And then she joined the call and said, ‘Sorry I’m late but we have an offer from Disney.’ I just started bawling.”
That’s probably how Murphy’s heroine, Willowdean Dickson, would react, too, because Willowdean is having an emotionally charged year. The 16-year-old fast-food cashier from Clover City, Tex., just lost her beloved Aunt Lucy, 36 years old and nearly 500 pounds, to a massive heart attack. Willowdean’s mother, a former beauty queen and the current organizer of the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant, wants to move past her older sister’s death; Willowdean cannot. She’s also grieving the loss of her best friend Ellen, whose interests are taking her in a different direction. Willowdean is already at sea when the most unexpected thing happens: the handsome jock she’s been crushing on appears to have a crush on her.
“The fact that what shakes her confidence is that this really hot guy is interested in her was so interesting,” said Balzer. “That’s not the way these stories usually go.”
Though Willowdean thought she had made peace with her weight, the idea of being publicly involved with a handsome athlete – the teasing she’ll endure, his hands on her “back fat” –unsettles her deeply. She gets her groove back by entering the beauty pageant, to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does.
“I wanted to make sure the book was about Willowdean’s internal struggle and not about pressure to lose weight,” Murphy said. “She sees her mom doesn’t have this perfect life just because she has a great body and she’s smart enough to understand there’s more to life than that.”
HarperCollins has gotten behind the book, creating Dumplin’ swag and a #DumplinPose Twitter campaign. This fall, Murphy will embark on a national tour with Cammie McGovern (A Step Toward Falling) called “Breaking the YA Mold,” with appearances at the Southern Festival of Books and the Texas Book Festival. She’s already done pre-publication touring and found response from booksellers – and early readers – has been “strong and enthusiastic,” she said. “I have gotten amazing e-mails from people sharing their personal stories and struggles. It’s almost overwhelming but I want to be there for those people. I am really hoping the book will foster a lot of conversations among friends and mothers and daughters about the issues we all have with our bodies.”
Murphy’s answers to our quiz, by the way, were Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park; The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler; and The D.U.F.F. by Kody Keplinger, although the film version of that novel rankled many readers when the main character was played by a slender actress. It bothered Murphy, too.
“I’m a Scorpio so I’m full of emotion all the time, whether I’m happy or sad, but when they asked me [on the conference call] whether I was excited [about selling the film rights], I had to say, ‘Can I talk to everyone again in a few hours?’” Murphy recalled. “Part of the reason I started crying was I’m scared they’re going to make a movie about fat people without any fat people in it.” Ultimately, her excitement about the project overrode her concerns.
In addition to the film rights, Dumplin’ has already sold into nine territories, including Australia, Brazil, Germany, and France.
“She struck a chord,” Balzer said of Murphy and her creation. “There’s organic excitement from every single department here. We all love this book wholeheartedly. The tragic thing about body insecurity is that everyone can relate. This is really a book for everyone.”