Dear Readers

Review of Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy

I remember standing in Target’s book section several years ago and picking up a book titled Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy about a fat girl who loves Dolly Parton and enrolls in her local beauty pageant. Enchanted, I picked up a copy but didn’t get around to reading it right away (although its cover of a blonde woman in a red evening dress standing in thrall to a tiara never failed to elicit a chuckle when I walked past). Fast forward to December 2018 when said book was adapted into a Netflix movie. It’s heartfelt and funny with a great Dolly Parton soundtrack. So, last winter my reading consisted of a binge of all of Murphy’s novels (including Puddin’, a sort-of-sequel that focuses on some of Dumplin’s secondary characters). Then, once I exhausted her canon, I pre-ordered of her new middle grade novel (designated for readers roughly eight to twelve years old), Dear Sweet Pea, which is on bookshelves now.

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Dear Sweet Pea is set in a small Texas town where, following a recent and amicable divorce, thirteen-year-old Sweet Pea’s mom and dad live in near-identical houses on the same street. Sweet Pea finds this same-but-not-the-sameness frustrating as she splits time between the two houses. School is equally challenging as well since a former best friend, now frenemy, creates new drama. In the middle of all these changes in Sweet Pea’s life, her eccentric neighbor and newspaper advice columnist, Miss Flora Mae, asks Sweet Pea to water the plants and forward the advice column correspondence while Flora Mae’s out of town. Sweet Pea intercepts a few letters and gives some advice of her own.

Despite transitioning to a middle grade book after her earlier YA novels, Murphy’s writing is confident in both its style and storytelling. The vocabulary and sentence structure are streamlined for younger readers (but also kept this big kid reader very entertained). Murphy creates a beautiful array of characters from Sweet Pea and her classmates to assorted teachers and parents. My favorite might just be the deliciously eccentric Miss Flora Mae who keeps her most important documents in the oven and who the local kids suspect may be a vampire. Murphy perfectly captures the feeling of being caught halfway between childhood and teenagedom as well as the uncertainty of not knowing how to move from one stage to the next. Dear Sweet Pea is ideal for fifth to seventh grade readers (and anyone who remembers what those in-between years were like).

For fans craving the next movie adapted from Julie Murphy’s work, Disney Channel has your back as they are developing a movie version of Dear Sweet Pea!

Read if you like: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh as well as Dumplin’ and Puddin’ by Julie Murphy.

Pumpkin Spice Confessional

Review of Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks with color by Sarah Stern

I write to you, dear readers, from inside my pumpkin spice confessional. Today is the first official day of fall, but for me once Labor Day passes all I can think about are cooler fall temperatures and all the seasonal trappings that are soon to follow from mums on front porches to cider in the stores and then, later, the smoky smell of fire pits at twilight and stories of supernatural beings as Halloween approaches. Needless to say, I’ve already tasted my first Reese’s pumpkin of the season and have a pumpkin decorating plan locked in (spoiler alert: my pumpkin’s going to look like a unicorn!).

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For the autumnally inclined among us, then, the young adult graphic novel Pumpkinheads, written by Rainbow Rowell, illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks, and with color by Sarah Stern, could not come at a better time. This may well be the ideal read for a fall night. What’s more, you can easily devour it in one sitting if you choose. Set at what Rowell describes in an interview as “the Disneyland of pumpkin patches,” Pumpkinheads follows two patch employees, Deja and Josiah, on their last night working at the patch in their senior year of high school. What follows is a delightful blend of friendship, romance, and bursts of adventure.

First, the patch itself will make you want to launch yourself headfirst into a fall festival as it sports a pumpkin slingshot and haunted hacienda in addition to the more traditional haystack ride and corn maize (this book has puns galore and I find them adorable). The inside cover of the book features a map of the über-deluxe patch to help readers orient themselves during Deja and Josiah’s journey to various attractions. In addition, Hicks’ renderings of converted barns and families in costume coupled with Stern’s warm colors create a cozy canvas for the characters to ramble through on their last night.

Second, have your snacks ready when you read this because each of the patch’s many food stands outdoes the one before it from the Kettle Corn Kettle to the Chili Fries Stand to— my favorite— the Pumpkin Bomb Stand. (I wish I could add sound effects here to give this last one the flourish it deserves.) The Pumpkin Bomb is a mythical concoction of vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two slices of pumpkin pie, covered with chocolate, and mounted on a stick. In other words, it’s pumpkin spice heaven.

Of course, all this delightful scene setting wouldn’t add up to a story without characters and conflict. Luckily, Rowell delivers on both fronts. Although we only spend one night with Deja and Josiah, Rowell capably demonstrates their personalities as they interact with each other and patch employees and visitors. Here, again, Hicks’ panels provide beautiful facial reactions during conversations and a sense of movement in the action sequences. The protagonists’ quick-witted dialogue made me laugh more than once but they also talk about ideas like fate and free will without those conversations seeming pretentious or out of context for their situation. As It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown demonstrates, the pumpkin patch has long been a site for existential contemplation and this remains true for Deja and Josiah.

I would happily read many more stories with Rowell’s lovable characters in or outside of the patch. The graphic novel hints that they may apply to be Christmas elves for a mall Santa, and I can only hope this leads to more holiday sequels! For now, though, I’m off to try and recreate the Pumpkin Bomb in my kitchen. Happy Fall everybody!

Back to School Fears Legitimized: Review of The Swallows by Lisa Lutz

I fan girl hard for Lisa Lutz. Reading her Spellman Files series (about a family of private detectives who are always tailing or phone tapping at least one other family member) was a treat I reserved for special reading occasions, like after I finished an onerous task, and I put off reading the final novel in the series because I did not want it to end. In fact, I adore Lutz’s work so much that she’s one of the writers whose names I frequently search on bookselling websites, social media, and her own author website so as to know exactly when her next novel will be released. Needless to say, I have been anxiously awaiting the release of her most recent novel, The Swallows.

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For fellow Lutzites (Lutzians? Lutz Loons?), the archetypes of her previous novels are still present in her new novel: dysfunctional parents, witty women who somehow still don’t have their life put together, precocious teen girls who are almost too smart for their own good, and lovable male allies who prove to be dependable sidekicks for the female protagonists. While the characters feel consistent with others in Lutz’s fictional universe, the story itself is quite a bit darker than the beloved Spellman series.

In The Swallows, set at Stonebridge (a less than prestigious boarding school in Vermont), Lutz depicts a level of scumbaggery heretofore unseen in her other works. The novel’s conflicts center on a series of sexual scandals (some at other schools and in the past as well as at Stonebridge) that, once uncovered, spiral into tragic and disturbing consequences for everyone involved.

Set in 2009, The Swallows focuses on a pre-#MeToo era but one which is no less filled with predators and prey as well as drastically inequal power dynamics. Smartly, Lutz does not divide the heroes and villains neatly along gender lines nor between faculty/staff and students. The spiral of abuse and retaliation becomes increasingly messy as more about the scandals are uncovered. As a former teacher, I found the corrupt and enabling school administration and teachers extremely unsettling (and that is due to Lutz’s skill in depicting these characters and showing their flaws). This is not a feel-good story and it is to Lutz’s credit that it is not. In fact, the overarching metaphor for the book is one of war with section titles such as “Allies,” “The Army,” and quotes from the likes of Winston Churchill and Sun Tzu prefacing each section. Ultimately, I read the book not as offering solutions to the abuses it documents but as showing what happens when people try to dismantle dehumanizing systems.

Overall, I thought Lutz’s portrayal of the abuse and its intersections with gender was thoughtful and refrained from using stereotypes. However, the book is almost purely heteronormative in the way it documents sexual relationships. I wish Lutz had included LBGTQ+ characters or just addressed these relationships as some part of the school’s social scene. It would have added a different perspective on so many of the male-female heterosexual conflicts and been more realistic for a 2009 high school. Still, readers interested in gender and power dynamics, specifically how they impact people long before they reach the workplace, will find a lot to think about in this novel.

So, if you’re still not sure whether or not to read The Swallows, I suspect the Netflix headings for it would be something along the lines of: Boarding School Capers, Strong Female Leads (way to turn something nice into something weird, Netflix), and Feminist YA. Since the assorted algorithms of Amazon, Spotify, et al, have utterly ruined me, I tend to sort books in a similar way (especially since I sometimes cluster read books in a particular genre over time). Read The Swallows if you liked: any of Lutz’s previous novels, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, or The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. (Or, if you haven’t read these other books already, go ahead and check them out. I enjoyed all of them!)