Julie Murphy returns to Clover City, Texas in her newest young adult novel, Pumpkin, a follow-up to her New York Times bestseller Dumplin—later turned into a feel-good Netflix movie with Jennifer Aniston and a Dolly Parton soundtrack—and its sequel, Puddin’. It’s a loose series, and no background reading is required for Pumpkin, which retreads comfortable ground in a sweet, filling story about self-love and empowerment.
As a fat gay kid in the South, Waylon Brewer is used to judgment. He tries to let it roll off his back, finding comfort with his family, including his best friend and twin sister, Clementine, and his favorite TV show, the RuPaul’s Drag Race equivalent Fiercest of Them All. But when a video of Waylon doing drag in character as “Pumpkin” starts circulating around the Brewers’ high school—a video that was just supposed to be for Waylon—he has a new level of mockery to deal with. Waylon was looking forward to graduating and leaving high school behind without making too much of a splash. Now he’s been nominated for prom queen.
The nomination is supposed to be a joke at his expense, but Waylon decides to embrace his place on the prom court and let his inner Pumpkin run free, with some help from his friends and family. Among Waylon’s allies is dreamy prom king nominee Tucker Watson, whose tentative friendship with Waylon blossoms into something more as Waylon finds the confidence to live his dream of being a queen.
If you have read Dumplin’, the plot might sound familiar. Waylon has a lot in common with Dumplin’ hero Willowdean, who entered a beauty pageant to prove that fat girls can be beauty queens, too. (Willowdean and other characters from Dumplin’ and Puddin’ show up in Waylon’s story, with roles that range from cameos to full-on subplots.) Although Pumpkin has a gay protagonist, and it’s about a prom court, not a pageant, the book hits most of the same beats that Dumplin’ did. Even if you haven’t read that book, you might be able to predict where the story is going.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s dissatisfying. Waylon’s experiments with drag are fun and refreshing, and the freedom he feels in being Pumpkin is exhilarating to read about. Plus size queens have found a place in the drag community since the beginning of the subculture, and their representation on shows like Drag Race has been debated for years. It’s nice to see how Waylon’s feelings about being fat intersect with his feelings about drag—and with his feelings about looking for love. Murphy has a gift for tying together romance, family, friendship, and competition in a story about unapologetically being who you are, even if it’s a little cliché.
Pumpkin by Julie Murphy was published on May 25, 2021.