In Clover City, Texas, the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant is just about the biggest thing in town. Willowdean's mom, a former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet, is the head of the pageant, and she prides herself on being able to zip herself in to her winning gown each year. Naturally, one would think Will is a shoo-in to be this year's queen, except that Will is fat. We never find out just how fat she is, but it's made clear from the beginning that she is definitely not a size 4. This seems not to bother her, who appears to be pretty at home in her own skin, a feat that most teenage girls, and, let's face it, not a few adult women, struggle with, but it (very obviously) bothers her mother, whose own sister and Will's beloved Aunt Lucy died about six months ago from what is intimated in the book of some sort of obesity-related issue.
But then Will meets a boy, Bo, cute, private school, mysterious, athletic Bo, who gives her her first kiss and red candy suckers and most definitely likes her, even though he is way out of her league. Confusingly, rather than raising her self-confidence, being on Bo's arm has the opposite effect. Her relationship with her best friend Ellen starts to go a little bit sideways when Ellen begins working at the local clothing boutique that caters exclusively to sizes in to which Will will never fit. And suddenly, Will isn't sure she's as comfortable with herself as she professes to be. Rather than allow herself to shrink in to a wallflower, Will does the scariest thing she can think of: she enters the pageant. With her late aunt's friends - Dolly Patron loving drag queens who steal every scene they are in - helping her along the way, Will not only enters the contest, but convinces several other girls to do so as well, girls who are not the traditional blonde haired, blue eyed beauty queens Texas is so well known for.
Murphy nails every bit of Will's story. From her bravado about being comfortable in her own skin to her burning desire to both be left alone by and loved by her mother to her nervousness about Bo kissing her and her disbelief that he really likes her, Willowdean rings exactly true. Even the romance is perfectly drawn, with all of the nervousness and confusion and butterflies of first love, along with some hidden sweetness from Bo, who could have been too good to be true, but Murphy gets him exactly right, too. I'm not her target audience (by about twenty five years - ack!), but Murphy spoke to me like Judy Blume and Cynthia Voigt did all those years ago.
Turn on Miss Dolly Parton and put Dumplin' in to the hands of every teenage girl you come across.