Young adult author Julie Murphy specializes in novels about colorful characters who seek to find their passion and their tribe. Her latest book, Pumpkin, is no exception. Fat and openly gay, Waylon Brewer navigates a world of high school bullies and social hierarchies by keeping himself apart from his peers, making friends with the school nurse and hanging out with his grandmother and twin sister, Clementine. Waylon observes as he heads to the school nurse’s office with a churro, “Sure, being made fun of behind my back doesn’t exactly fill me with joy, but if being the teacher’s pet saves me from merciless lunchroom politics, swirlies, black eyes, and boys chock-full of toxic masculinity, I’ll gladly do my time.”
Murphy is a master at developing characters with unique voices and desires, as evidenced by the earlier two books in this trilogy that concludes with Pumpkin. All of the books are set in the fictional Southern town of Clover City.
Her first book, Dumplin’, was made into a popular Netflix movie starring Jennifer Aniston. Dumplin’ followed Willowdean Dixon, a fat girl with a beauty queen mother who takes on the Miss Clover City beauty pageant. In the second book, Puddin’, Millie Michalchuk dumps fat camp to chase her dream of being a newscaster. These characters return as a supporting cast in Pumpkin and play an important role in an outcasts-only party that becomes a high school rager.
The books read a little like television on the page, but all in all, Murphy brings humor, charm, and originality to what could be standard tales of high school angst. Her novels belong to a growing selection of young adult books that are body-positive and queer friendly.
Clover City is a small Southern town with the usual problems: bullies, dads who drink, kids who want to be their authentic selves but also long to fit in. The kids find refuge at the local burger joint and at a honky-tonk called Hideaway that holds all-ages drag shows. These teens have big dreams and look to their heroes including RuPaul and Dolly Parton for inspiration. In order to reach their goals, they have to run a gamut of cringe-worthy encounters. Waylon Brewer’s dream is to escape the small town of Clover City and become a famous drag queen, but first he has to make it through senior year. Waylon is holding his own until a tape of himself as “Miss Pumpkin Patch,” his drag alter ego, goes viral. Then Waylon has no place to hide and begins to take chances.
Romance is an essential element of Murphy’s books. In Pumpkin, Waylon weathers the disappointment of having the boy he makes out with decide to come out after he falls for someone else. Enter Tuck Watson, a popular football player, who seems to be sending Waylon mixed signals. When Waylon is nominated for prom queen, he and Tucker are forced to work together on Prom Court and to navigate their growing attraction.
The novel works because the characters are relatable underdogs that make you root for them. Murphy offers a plausible look into the challenges they each face, from lack of confidence to an alcoholic parent. There are several appealing subplots involving other couples at the school and the relationship between Waylon and his twin sister Clementine. There are also elements that strain credulity, including an “I am Spartacus” moment involving a school bully.
Pumpkin is a fitting end to a trilogy that celebrates individuality and the right of all of us to revel in being ourselves.
By Julie Murphy
Balzer & Bray/Harperteen
Published May 25, 2021