Dina Gachman
September 15, 2015 6:00 am

Willowdean Dickson is a Texas teen and self-proclaimed fat girl who worships Dolly Parton and despises her tiny hometown’s claim to fame: The Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant. It’s the oldest beauty pageant in the state, and Will’s onetime pageant queen mom leads the planning committee. Entering the thing has never been high on Will’s list of priorities, until she secretly tries on the pageant tiara and realizes she has something to prove.

Will’s mom gave her the nickname Dumplin’, which she hates. She gets made fun of by bullies at school, but with her best friend Ellen by her side, Will has always felt comfortable in her own skin. That is, until she falls in love with Bo, a former jock with the heart of a poet and the looks of Channing Tatum. The problem isn’t that Bo doesn’t give her the time of day. It’s that he likes her too. A lot. And it brings out Will’s deepest insecurities and leads her to do the most terrifying thing she can think of — she enters the Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant.

Dumplin is a book about self-acceptance, first love, friendship, and courage, and Willowdean is one of those protagonists that stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. If you’re a fan of Rainbow Rowell or of Murphy’s first book Side Effects May Vary, you should pick it up immediately. Here’s why.

Two Words: Dolly Parton

Parton is the patron saint of this book, and of Willowdean’s life. The book starts with the Dolly quote, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose,” and that’s pretty much Willowdean’s mantra. She loves Dolly so much she gave her 1998 cherry-red Pontiac Grand Prix the name Jolene, after the song, and when she’s brainstorming what her talent could be for the pageant, Will says, “My talents consist of watching television, being Ellen’s best friend, sighing, and knowing the lyrics to nearly every Dolly Parton song.” If you love Dolly, you’ll definitely love this book. If you don’t, you’ll probably start listening to all her music and plan a trip to Dollywood before you finish reading.

She’s Comfortable in Her Own Skin

Early on in the book, before Will kisses Bo and starts feeling insecure and unworthy, she says, “I don’t like to think of my hips as a nuisance, but more of an asset. I mean, if this were, like, 1642, my wide birthing hips would be worth many cows or something.” She’s funny, she’s confident, and she thankfully doesn’t end up going on a crash diet that involves a visual montage of her working out and eating carrots so she can fit into her red sequined pageant dress. “The word fat makes people uncomfortable… But that’s me. I’m fat. It’s not a cuss word,” she asserts. Her criteria for who should wear a bathing suit? “Do you have a body? Put a swimsuit on it.” We could all benefit from that attitude. I mean, who wants to eat carrots all the time anyway?

But She’s Also Human

One of the heartbreaking things about the book is that despite all that confidence, Will is only human, and she does start to doubt herself and fall victim to society’s idea of the “perfect” body. Despite the fact that guys start asking her on dates, she still feels like the ugly duckling and those “wide birthing hips” start to embarrass her, and make her feel (wrongly) like she has no business entering a swimsuit competition or entering a beauty pageant. Her insecurity feels real, and it’s part of what makes the book great. She’s not a superhero. She’s just a teenager who hates being called Dumplin’.

She’s Loyal

The love story between Will and Bo is so explosive it’s right up there with Eleanor and Park’s romance, but it’s the friendship between Will and her BFF Ellen that really shows her loyalty. They’ve been friends since first grade, they share a love of Dolly, and they tell each other absolutely everything. That is, until they start to drift apart. Without Ellen in her life, Will is a little lost. She’s pissed at her best friend for hanging out with lame girls like Callie, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her. If you’ve ever had a painful falling out with a friend, you’ll relate. The story of Ellen and Will’s friendship is really the heart of the book.

So if you’re looking for a funny, spunky protagonist to root for, check out Willowdean Dickson. She’s not perfect. She has her moments of doubt. But she knows that “Perfection is nothing more than a phantom shadow we’re all chasing.” Amen to that, and long live Dolly.

Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ comes out today, and the book was optioned by Disney so keep an eye out for the movie version.

(Image via Harper Collins)

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