So I admit, I definitely read this book because I heard the author lived in my area and was also a librarian. I normally avoid contemporary Young Adult stories because they aren’t my thing, but I knew I needed to give this a shot. The result was a charming, wholly Texan, story about friends, boyfriends, loving yourself, and Dolly Parton that made me smile.
Willowdean Dickson, aka Dumplin’, loves her plus-sized body and has never suffered from a lack of confidence. However, shaken by the loss of her aunt, who was like a second mother, and dealing with her first romantic encounters with handsome Bo, she starts to doubt herself. When Bo touches her she is all too aware of her weight and her self-consciousness stands in the way of enjoying their time together. Add to that the fact that her BFF Ellen has started pulling away from her in favor of hanging out with more popular girls from her work. Willowdean is feeling confused, left behind, and unsure of herself. To boost her self-esteem, or at least regain her confidence, she decides to enter into the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet beauty pageant.
I think part of why I tend to avoid contemporary YAs is because I see all these authors praised from remembering what it was like to be a teen, or telling it how it really is to be a teen. Then I read and I don’t see any of my teenage years in those stories. That was not the case with Dumplin’. There was so much about both Willowdean and Ellen that I related to. I’m not sure if it was because the book is set in Texas, and I’m a native Texan, or what, but so many times I caught myself with a nostalgic grin over some scene. Willowdean has a crush on the handsome boy, Bo, that she works with at a fast food restaurant. He charms her by leaving lollipops in her locker and they end up making out behind the dumpster. While I myself didn’t work fast food in high school, I spent many an hour behind the Whataburger my boyfriend worked at, so Willowdean and Bo took me right back to those moments.
Many readers will also relate to Willowdean’s friend-jealousy over Ellen’s work friend. It is so hard when you’re young and your best friend meets someone new. You expect your best friend forever to really be forever, but suddenly changes in your personality, or situation, lead one of you away. Willowdean’s fear of being left behind is one many of us have poignant memories of.
Although this book is a romance, and a bit of a love triangle, I think its strength comes from the scenes in the book that aren’t romance, like Willowdean and Ellen’s friendship and the beauty pageant. The second half of the book is dominated by the zany goings-on of a teen beauty pageant. I loved this part and it read faster, for me, than the first half. I mean, who wouldn’t love (somewhat sheltered) teen girls accidentally going to a Dolly Parton themed drag show? Or then getting pageant advice from those same drag queens? It was great. I really enjoyed seeing how Willowdean was able to own it and face down doubters who wouldn’t think a chubby girl should be in a pageant, including her own mother, who happens to be a former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet and the coordinator of the pageant.
As much as I enjoyed the girl power message of this book, the nuanced relationships, and the Dolly Parton references, the ending lost some points from me. The end felt rushed and unresolved, which I think can be okay in YA, but I wanted a tiny bit more. I think the pacing of the book could have been a little tighter in the first half, with maybe more of the pageant details in the beginning, as it does feel divided between the slower boy and friend and boyfriend troubles for a half and then the fast pace of the pageant for the last half. That said, this is a really cute feel-good story, with plenty of Southern charm, and it may make you want to go to a Dolly Parton drag show.