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Book Review

"Dumplin' " by Julie Murphy has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean has always been confident about who she is — until her 17th summer. While her best friend, Ellen, works at a trendy boutique at the mall, Willow works at a local fast-food joint. She meets Bo, a cute, prep school athlete who whistles while he works.

Ellen decides she is ready to have sex with her boyfriend. Willow is not jealous of Ellen’s boyfriend, but as she is a virgin, she feels like Ellen is leaving her behind. The feeling is exacerbated when Ellen starts wanting to hang out with Callie, another girl she works with at the mall.

Callie represents everything Willow hates in high school girls — she’s cute, thin, perky and shallow. When Callie accidently tells Willow something about Ellen’s sex life, which Ellen did not share with her, Willow is hurt. She distances herself from her best friend to protect herself.

Willow finds herself in an awkward position when Bo, the cute boy from work, starts to flirt with her. Although happy with his attention, she begins to feel uncomfortable in her own skin. When Bo kisses her, Willow longs to talk things out with Ellen, but decides to keep her budding relationship a secret, just as Ellen seems to be keeping things from her.

Willow grows anxious when she learns Bo is transferring to her school. She knows the kids will point and stare at them because she is fat and he is incredibly handsome. She does not want that kind of drama in her life, so she breaks up with Bo. When he transfers into one of her classes, she quits her job to be around him as little as possible.

Willow’s mother is a healthcare worker whose one claim to fame was winning the Miss Teen Blue Bell contest as a teenager. Since then, she has helped run the local competition, a rite of passage for many girls in their small Texas town. As Willow continues to struggle with her identity, she decides to enter the contest as a way to prove to herself that fat girls deserve the right to shine as much as the pretty, perfect girls do.

Willow gets angry when Ellen signs up for the pageant as well, but she’s done so in an act of solidarity. Ellen actually has a chance of winning because she is what people usually look for in a Miss Teen Blue Bell. The friends have a major falling out, with neither willing to apologize.

Willow finds herself the unlikely hero of several other misfit girls from school. Millie, Amanda and Hannah all sign up for the pageant. As rehearsals begin, Willow knows that they need some serious coaching to keep from making fools of themselves. She finds help from old friends of her Aunt Lucy.

Lucy had lived with Willow and her mom until she passed away at 36 from a heart attack caused by her obesity. Willow still struggles with the loss. Willow brings her new friends to a bar that her aunt liked to visit, and they watch a transvestite beauty contest. The bouncer at the bar, Dale, remembers Lucy and allows the girl in, as long as they don't drink. Dale’s partner, Lee, impersonates Dolly Parton, Willow and Ellen’s favorite singer. Lee gives the girls pointers on how to walk in heels and present themselves at the pageant.

Willow agrees to go out on a date with a boy named Mitch. Although she enjoys his company, she knows she is still not over Bo. Mitch is kind and attentive. He agrees to be her escort for the Miss Teen Blue Belle pageant, but when they finally share a kiss, Willow is certain he is no replacement for Bo.

Bo continues to try and convince Willow to date him. He assures her he is not worried about what other people will say as he loves her just the way she looks. When Mitch sees Willow and Bo together, he realizes she does not like him. They break up, and Willow, distraught about her life, tells the girls she is dropping out of the pageant.

After a weekend of Willow not answering texts or taking showers, Hannah stops by to talk her into staying in the pageant. The other girls need her there. Millie has wanted to be in the pageant her entire life, but she might not be a part of it if Willow drops out. Willow agrees to continue with the pageant.

Willow aces her pageant interview, making an impression on the judges. However, their last question, in which they ask her to define loyalty, makes her think of Ellen. She knows she must apologize to her best friend. Her opportunity comes when they are seated alphabetically by last name, which means Ellen and Willow are next to each other. The two make up and share what has happened in their lives over the past couple months.

Willow realizes that she cannot perform her talent, a magic act, without looking like a fool. She and Ellen create a new act and keep it secret from Willow’s mom and the judges. Willow knows her performance will get her disqualified, but she does not care.

On the day of the pageant she lip synchs to Dolly Parton’s song “Jolene.” The crowd loves it, but she is not allowed to finish the competition, which means she will not get to wear the evening gown she and her mother altered. Ellen’s boyfriend gets food poisoning and so she asks Willow to change into her gown and be her escort for that portion of the contest.

Once her friend Millie is announced as second-runner up, Willow leaves the auditorium, still wearing her evening gown. She walks up the street to the fast-food restaurant, and it is clear that she is ready to begin a true relationship with Bo.

Christian Beliefs

Although Willow’s mother goes to church, she goes for social reasons. She also listens to Christian radio. Willow attends church on holidays and goes to a “harvest party” on Halloween. She attends a Catholic mass with Bo, although she knows her mom will not approve. Willow likes the quiet of his church. She compares the service to a ceremony from the Girl Scouts. After the service, Bo places money in a lockbox so they can each light a candle for someone. Although not stated, Willow prays for Lucy, and Bo prays for his mother who died.

When Mitch and Willow watch a movie in his room, his mother tells him to leave the door open for the Holy Ghost. Millie admits that her parents would not have approved of her going to the transvestite bar. They would have said Lee and Dale were living in sin but now that Millie has met them, she believes they are good people. Willow hates “Jesus vocab,” like “living in sin.” She makes comments about God creating ranch dressing on the eighth day.

Other Belief Systems

Bo gives Willow a Magic Eight Ball for her birthday, and she periodically asks it questions to see what it says about her future. Bo’s stepmother believes in astrology and has a lengthy discussion with Willow about her zodiac sign — what it means and how it relates to Bo’s.

Authority Roles

Willow’s mother has raised Willow without a husband and works hard to provide for her. Loving and caring, she also is appearance conscious and periodically tries to force Willow to diet, especially during the months leading up to the pageant. Aunt Lucy was a source of comfort and approval for Willow. Her death left a void in Willow’s life. With the exception of Ellen’s parents, the other couples depicted in the story have stable relationships and a deep interest in their children’s lives.


God’s name is taken in vain and also used with d--n, swear to and oh my. The name of Jesus is used alone and with the words Christ, sweetand sweet baby. The f-word is used in several forms and with the word off. D--n, h---, b--tard and b--ch are also used. S--- is used in a variety of different ways and with the words holy, bull, piece of, eat, head, hole, ton and a--. A-- is also used alone and with the words piggy, bad and fake. Other objectionable words include p---ed, boobs, boobies, peens (a euphemism for penis,) freakin’, skanks, d--k, douche, butt and balls.

Willow knees a boy in the groin who has been verbally bullying her. She also knees some of the other girls. She has a dream in which she is a character in a video game that must kill zombie beauty pageant contestants. She blows them up with her bazooka. Bo tells Willow about a fight he had in which he broke a boy’s collarbone. The boy broke Bo’s nose.


Willow and Bo share several passionate kisses, usually outside of the restaurant where they work. Sometimes they make out in his car. Willow enjoys kissing but becomes self-conscious when Bo moves his hands to her body. When Mitch kisses her, Willow cannot help but compare it with Bo's kisses, and Mitch’s kiss falls short.

Ellen announces that she wants to have sex with her boyfriend during summer vacation. She has debated about it for over a year. She says it will make her a woman. Willow disagrees and tells her that to make such a big deal out of the act only sets her up for disappointment. Later, Ellen tells her about how they had sex in his bedroom while his parents were out of the house. She felt in control and loved, but still herself.

Willow and Ellen watch a talk show in which a couple fall in love but discover they are brother and sister. Ellen tells Willow that her mother needs to “get laid.” Callie makes a comment to Willow about how Ellen and Tim had some kind of “oral mishap.” Since Ellen had not shared it with her, Willow assumes it had something to do with oral sex.

Willow and her friends attend a pageant for transvestites.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol: There is alcohol at the bar, but the girls are only served water. Hannah and Willow drink beer.

Worldview: Lee and Dale’s relationship is celebrated because they are considered good people. Whatever people want to believe in is OK, as long as they keep it to themselves and are nice to others.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

13 and up


Julie Murphy






Record Label



Balzer + Bray; an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers


On Video

Year Published





We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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