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By Julie Murphy
(Balzer + Bray; New York, NY; 2015. 371 pages)
Ages 13 and up
“Clover City isn’t known for much. Every few years our football team is decent enough for play-offs and every once in a while someone even makes it out of here and does the kind of thing worth recognizing. But the one thing that puts our little town on the map is that we’re home of the oldest beauty pageant in Texas. The Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant started back in the 1930s and has only gotten bigger and more ridiculous with every passing year. I should know since my mom has led the planning committee for the last fifteen years.” So says Willowdean Dickson, the teenage star of this delightful novel about being big and beautiful, but still having to navigate friendships, dating, and a beauty queen mother who can’t seem to accept that fat can be fabulous, too.
Known as Will to her friends and affectionately nicknamed Dumplin’ by her mother, Willowdean introduces herself to the gorgeous new boy at her fast-food workplace as, “Cashier, Dolly Parton enthusiast, and resident fat girl.” She likes that he doesn’t seem to react to that, other than to smile and tell her his name, Bo. She goes on to explain to readers, “The word fat makes people uncomfortable…But that’s me. I’m fat. It’s not a cuss word. It’s not an insult. At least it’s not when I say it. So I always figure why not get it out of the way?”
And that’s Will, straightforward and self-assured. Until Bo shows he’s interested, and the dominant thin culture that says she’s not good enough for his kind of handsome starts crowding out her confidence. Then a bully at school overhears her mom’s affectionate nickname and turns it into something that makes her “feel so small for being so large.” In an act of rebellion and self-assertion, and “because there’s no reason I shouldn’t,” Will decides to compete in the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant. Her action is a spark that ignites a minor revolution and inspires a few other unconventionally beautiful girls to become participants as well, but this is no fairy tale and the revolution is not without setbacks.
Dumplin’ is deeper than a superficial beauty contest, however, and offers an array of situations, confusions, and triumphs to entertain and enlighten readers. With a best friend break-up, the recent death of her favorite aunt, relationship challenges, and moral dilemmas to deal with, Willowdean is complex and conflicted and contains multitudes. She and the other characters in this sweet novel will win your heart. Read it and enjoy!
Netflix has produced an excellent version of Lemony Snicket’s wonderfully horrible tales. Whet your appetite for it by listening to this interview with the author, Daniel Handler:
There is a transcript on the linked page, but in this case reading is not as much fun, and I highly recommend listening by clicking the blue and white play button in the upper left. Enjoy…or, um…don’t.
And here’s the trailer for the Netflix series:
Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
Our outgoing President is an avid reader and writer, and has a few words to say about the importance of books in an interview with the New York Times’ renowned book critic, Michiko Kakutani:
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. The challenge: draft an entire novel during the month of November.
Why do it? For 30 crazy, exciting, surprising days, you get to lock away your inner editor, let your imagination take over, and just create!
Participants begin writing November 1 and must finish by 11:59 PM on November 30. The word-count goal for our adult program is 50,000 words, but the Young Writers Program (YWP) allows 17-and-under participants to set reasonable-but-challenging individual word-count goals.
Novelists can write directly on our website (or in a separate document), find inspiration in our noveling resources, and tap a worldwide community of fellow writers for support.
Visit the website https://ywp.nanowrimo.org/ for more info and to get started.
Check out how to participate in The Oregon Reader’s Choice Awards and see what fabulous titles you can vote for this year. Click the link below for a slideshow:
Jandy Nelson opens her novel, I’ll Give You the Sun, with a quote by Rumi that says, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” This novel doesn’t give you the chance to get lost on the way, however, but grabs you tightly by the hand, and runs with you through frightful and fabulous emotional landscapes of both wrongdoing and rightdoing until it thrusts you out into the field beyond. It’s a journey that will make you laugh, and gasp, and ache for the ways that people can love each other fiercely and hurt each other to the very core.
The main characters, twin brother and sister artists Noah and Jude Sweetwine, tell the story from two time periods, taking turns by chapter as Noah at age 13 begins and Jude at 16 continues. Their dual accounts are each limited by their own limited knowledge, but together their stories create a whole picture that, if they can only reconcile, will allow them to “remake the world.” Because, somewhere in those three years, events have turned the twins from a pair with a psychic connection, to siblings who barely speak to each other. Where once Noah describes Jude and himself as sharing a soul, or Jude as the one refuge where he doesn’t feel like a hostage, and Jude tells Noah she loves him “the most” and always will; later he calls her his “ex-sister” and explains how the world of his artistic creation is his only refuge, “not this toilet-licking one” he has to live in. Finding out just what caused this rift and following the development of their relationships with each other, their parents, and the emergence of their own identities is absolutely compelling. That, and Nelson’s gorgeous writing with its vivid metaphors, whimsical magic, devastating honesty, and glorious wit. Touching on everything from issues of sexual identity (Noah is gay), to bullying, first sexual encounters, first loves, divorce, death, art as religion, and “the ecstatic impulse,” this is a teen coming-of-age story at its most painful and celebratory all at once.
I’ll Give You the Sun won the 2015 Printz Award for best literary work for young adults and is a Stonewall Honor Book. Read it.
Teacher Librarian at Sheldon High School
This Is the Part Where You Laugh
By Peter Brown Hoffmeister
Alfred A Knopf; New York; 2016
Ages 14 and older
Local author Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s new novel, This Is the Part Where You Laugh, is a sharp slice of life that left me feeling a bit like the main character, Travis, who says, towards the end of the book, “…there are too many thoughts in my head, like trying to hold a gallon of water in my bare hands. Someone keeps pouring and I keep trying to make a better cup out of my palms and knitted-together fingers.” For readers, the someone who keeps pouring is Hoffmeister; this novel is overflowing with big issues, beautiful imagery, painful truths, and–in spite of death, disease, addiction, and homelessness–oddly enough, optimism.
Set here in Eugene during the summer before Travis’ sophomore year of high school, when the skate park under the Washington-Jefferson Bridge was still under construction, the story is told by Travis in short chapters with plenty of dialogue and description. He starts with the intriguing and disconcerting act of releasing a couple of South American crocodiles into the lake he lives on with his grandparents in order to create some excitement to distract his grandmother (and perhaps even more, himself) from the fact that she is dying of cancer. He plans to spend the summer improving his basketball game along with his best friend, Malik, better known as Creature, and periodically searching for his homeless, heroin-addict mother in the hope of helping her out. Even though, as he says, “Sometimes when I think I see her it’s like I’ve swallowed a piece of glass and I wonder where it’s going to cut me.”
Other distractions include a new neighbor—an athletic, attractive girl who holds her own mysteries; occasional shoplifting; and installments of Creature’s fascinating writing project titled The Pervert’s Guide to Russian Princesses. Why Russian princesses? Creature explains, “I guess it’s like this: they didn’t have any power… I guess I like to put me there, too. With them. What if we had love affairs? What if we had powerful love affairs?”
As the summer wears on events unfold, little decisions lead to larger consequences, and in spite of times when Travis and Creature both spout wisdom beyond their years, they can’t seem to master trouble. There’s poetry in this novel, tangled in teenage foolishness and passion; and there’s tragedy in wasted lives and damage done all around. Eugene is very much a character in this book, too, with a focus on the dirtier side of our fair city: the homeless camps, the broken glass and used needles on the riverbank, the seedy west Eugene motels, and its racist past still present, too. But there’s redemption in the characters’ love and persistence. Even in the face of all the bad surrounding them like blackberry brambles, Travis recognizes “the only way through the thicket is to take the cutting.” This Is the Part Where You Laugh manages to be funny and heartbreaking and confusing and complex. Not unlike real life, after all. Read it.
Teacher Librarian at Sheldon High School