Puddin’ by Julie Murphy

I’ve heard Puddin’ by Julie Murphy described as a companion novel to Dumplin’. It was my impression that a companion novel is one in which we get the same time period from a different perspective. However, Puddin’ takes place after the end of Dumplin’ and we’ve switched narrators. Another fat girl and one of my favorite characters in Dumplin’, the focus is now Millie Michalchuck. Or so I thought.

The chapters alternate between Millie Michaelchuck and Callie Reyes (though Callie’s chapters are always longer). Yes, Callie, the “horrible human” who stole Willowdean’s best friend in Dumplin’. Callie is a member of the high school dance team, a team that wins championships but is financially neglected in favor of the always-losing football team. When the dance team’s only sponsor pulls funding because the business is struggling, Callie and the team vandalize the business to get revenge.

Millie’s uncle owns that business, and when she gets to work the next morning and finds the place trashed, she calls the police. Millie is able to identify one person in the video — Callie — thanks to a one-of-a-kind necklace Callie was wearing. Callie’s punishment is she’s kicked off the dance team and must pay her debt to the business by working there for free. With Millie.

Millie & Callie

My husband and I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by two women: Erin Mallon (voice of Millie) and Kyla Garcia (voice of Callie). Millie’s narrator has a nervous but determined delivery, which fit with Millie’s meticulous, organized personality. Callie’s narrator is brash, speaking with confidence and emphasizing words the way know-it-all popular girls do. Both fit well with their characters, and I was pleased that the publisher found a Latina voice narrator to play Callie Reyes. It makes a difference to readers when people are represented accurately.

Yet, I felt like Millie was presented as too “woke” in some places. Occasionally, this seventeen-year-old girl’s speech sounds like it was pulled directly off of social justice Twitter, such as checking her privilege because she’s white and Callie is half Mexican-American. And when she learns her friend is asexual, she admits that she doesn’t know much about it, that she will learn, and that it’s not her friend’s job to teach her. She actually says those things. A boy says to Callie, “I don’t mean to objectify you” but he likes watching Callie walk. The overly-aware characters rang false, though I can appreciate that author Julie Murphy is planting ideas about privilege and objectification in the mind’s of teen readers. Respect is never a bad lesson**EDIT** one thing I didn’t mention is that the novel is set in a VERY small town in Texas, a city known for it’s love of football and pageant queens. Everything about the town seems conservative. Also, the characters never get on social media. Yes, they text each other, but if Millie is woke in a bubble, I would think she’d engage on social media.

My disappointment is that this is Callie’s story, not Millie’s. It’s Callie who grows and learns, with Millie to help her along the way. Strange, because there was so much Murphy could have unpacked with Millie. Millie’s main conundrum is that she wants to apply to a journalism camp at the University of Texas instead of returning to fat camp for the 9th summer like her mother wants her to. Millie doesn’t want to be behind the scenes, she wants to be on the news. And everyone tells her that she’s fat and should be realistic.

For someone who thinks the news is her life, SHE NEVER ENGAGES WITH IT. This book is neutered from current politics, even local stuff. Millie doesn’t watch, read, or listen to any news. She’s focused on a boy instead. Julie Murphy could have chosen to have Millie on the local school paper. Or, many high schools have small TV studios in which students create news videos. Millie’s only brush with “news” is when she reads the day’s announcements — what’s for lunch, when the next dance is, that sort of thing — over the principal’s intercom.

While Puddin’ passes the test for being a fat-positive book, I was forced to ask if being kissed is the most important thing in a YA story about a fat girl. We already got that in Dumplin’ — and in a much better, more nuanced romantic plot line. And it’s not that Millie isn’t worthy of a boyfriend. But her personality and her ambitions were far behind teaching Callie to be nice and kissing her crush. I recommend this book, and I know people will enjoy it, but it left me wanting something stronger.

39 comments

  1. I was really interested in what you said about being ‘too woke.’ There is such a balance there, I think. On the one hand, the author wants to send some positive, healthy messages. On the other, if it isn’t completely authentic, we feel that. Hmm…..it really does sound as thought Dumplin’ was more engaging. Still, I’m glad you found parts of this one to like.

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    • I know that Julie Murphy is active on Twitter and in the YA liberal community. I myself am a liberal, but I think there have to be exceptions when portraying certain populations. For example, these characters live in a TINY TEXAS town. To what extent would they all be PC social justice warriors?

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  2. It’s a good point about the performative ‘wokeness’. I love the inclusivity of YA, which is streets ahead of adult fiction in this regard, but sometimes the writing and characterisation suffers because the author is trying so hard to get the right messages across. Becky Albertalli’s adorable books sometimes fall into this trap, but I’ve noticed that when she does portray attitudes and reactions that aren’t completely ‘right-on’, she gets critical comments in reviews, even though the framing depicts these as the view of a particular character rather than the author’s view. It’s a worrying simplistic way of reading fiction.

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    • I haven’t read Albertalli but want to read Leah on the Off-beat. I wonder if part of the problem is that it’s not young adults reading YA, but people in their early 20s who have the experience of high school behind them, and likely some college, which is a place where you can find loads of people interested in PC social justice. While my general rule is never criticize a person’s appearance or comment on it and be aware of how money, race, sexuality, and birth place affects the person standing in front of me, I’ll always make mistakes. Any social justice warrior who is unforgiving is saying we don’t DESERVE to be forgiven. If characters are so carefully crafted that they never need forgiving, they’re unrealistic.

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  3. Wonderful review, Melanie! I still want to read Puddin’, though I’ve heard similar complaints from other reviewers. I’m so glad that the narrators are appropriate for the characters in this audiobook, too. Representation matters.

    I’m sorry this book didn’t quite fit what you’re looking for, but at least it was fat-positive! I wonder if Murphy had no intention to write a sequel but was encouraged to do so after the success of Dumplin. Based on your review, it sounds like Murphy rushed putting together this book. The things you point out are important but are mostly details (with the exception of being “woke”). While they would have made the story richer and more life-like overall, it sounds like the overall book didn’t suffer too much from this. Remember, you aren’t a huge fan of YA. 😉

    About being too “woke”. I disagree with your comment. I have a number of cousins between 16-21 and they are all much more “woke” than I am. They really do speak about learning without forcing someone to teach them and make comments about how they aren’t objectifying each other. I believe this is a learned survival skill in the social media driven world we live in today. Kids in schools have always been bullied for being “wrong”. Can you imagine being the kid who makes the inappropriate comment about the trans student in this day and age? While it feels forced or too perfect, I would attribute that to the forced nature at which it seems this book was put together. The words are right. It’s how they are presented which feel wrong.

    …Man, now I have to read this book to see if any of my assumptions are true. XD All this from your review. Nailed it, Melanie.

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    • Thanks for disagreeing with me (no sarcasm!). I think one thing I didn’t mention is that the novel is set in a VERY small town in Texas, a city known for it’s love of football and pageant queens. Everything about the town seems backward. Also, the characters never get on social media. Yes, they text each other, but if Millie is woke in a bubble, I would think she’d engage on social media. I guess that overall she was a flat character, one who had all this potential but was shoved into a box in which she had to get a boyfriend and stand up to her mom, like every other teen story. Heck, even Dirty Dancing is Baby standing up to her dad and getting her man. I’d love to hear what you think about the novel, though I do believe you have to read or listen to Dumplin’ first.

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      • I actually have read Dumplin’! I guess I forgot how small their town is…

        I wonder about the lack of social media inclusion in this book. I wonder if that’s because it’s not a part of Murphy’s life, or because it’s just an awkward thing to include. I can’t imagine including a character’s engagement in social media in a text unless it was pivotal to the plot in some way. Like with When Dimple Met Rishi (I told you! Contemporary YA romances are my current escapist enjoyment), when Facebook/Twitter is used as a way for them to learn about each other without having met yet. Which is a plot point.

        The parallel you’ve made to Dirty Dancing slays me. Well. When put that way… Millie’s character is a bit diappointing.

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        • Even something like a character is bored waiting for her ride, so checks through Twitter. I know Julie Murphy is on Twitter a lot. You can’t separate her from Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera. They’re quite the trio.

          I’m glad you’ve found a genre that speaks to you right now. We all need that from time to time. I am SERIOUSLY considering reading some Sweet Valley soon just for the fun of it, and I was SO tempted the other day when another blogger offered to do a Vampire Chronicles buddy read with me! Gah! Oh, Anne Rice, how you have eaten up so much of my time!

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  4. Glad you enjoyed this, even if it didn’t quite live up to the previous book! You raise interesting points about Millie being “too woke” in some spots. I noticed that trend a lot in manuscripts when I interned at a kids’ press over the summer. Just reading your description of what’s said, it seems like a lot of teens might have also encountered these ideas (presented in very similar language) on sites like Tumblr, Twitter, etc.? It ruins the realism of the novel, but I feel like the experience of seeing those ideas offline at an early age would be valuable.

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    • I can’t imagine interning at a children’s press. It’s so strange to see adults write what they think kids want and NEED to read. It sounds odd, but I wish there were children’s books written by children.

      When I was doing my MFA at Notre Dame, there was an opportunity to work as an intern and read the slush pile for a romance publisher in New York. I’m not sure how quickly that would destroy my soul, but I imagine the answer is “one summer.”

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  5. I’m so glad I’m not a YA – life is way too difficult when you have to spend every moment trying not to offend people who seem determined to be offended at least 90% of the time! I don’t think I’m ever likely to be “woke” – the very expression makes me want to curl up and go to sleep… 😉

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    • For me, the definition of “woke” would ask that people consider the context of each person they meet–race, age, birth place, financial situation–and be excellent to that person without assume that it’s only good if that person is just like you. Then, once you get to know the individual, if they suck, decide that person isn’t for you. Although it sounds counter-intuitive because I talk about fat people all the time, in real life I never comment on other people’s bodies, positive or negative.

      Where I draw the line is when people rattle off lines pulled straight from the Twitterverse, and if I don’t do the same then I’m some sort of enemy walking around with her eyes shut.

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      • See, I genuinely think that’s how most people have always behaved, at least in my lifetime – they just didn’t think they needed to announce their “wokeness” to the world! But I’ve realised over the last few years that American and British society are very different beasts, and our prejudices tend to be expressed differently too.

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  6. Such an interesting review. I do feel a bit disappointed that Millie got kissed by the boy but her dreams were never explored as well. It almost feels like a missed opportunity. I’m still glad you enjoyed the book but totally get why you wanted a bit more…

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  7. This is a great post! I haven’t read Puddin’ or Dumplin’, but I’m aware of them, and I would like fat-positive YA books to be about more than getting kissed. It’s interesting that the characters are so “woke.” As an adult reader of YA literature, the unrealistic characters would annoy me, but as a parent of YA readers, I *love* books that promote those messages. I hope books like these help make it more likely that teenagers from conservative hometowns will actually talk and behave that way.

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    • Agreed. As another reader pointed out, not only am I NOT the target audience for this book, but I don’t really care for YA at all (I read any genre of book that promotes a fat women or girl with dignity).

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    • I just asked Nick. He said that when I noted that Millie doesn’t engage with any media, it was a huge revelation. It’s certainly a book that promotes discussion, but should be classified as a “mean girl redemption.” Puddin’ so much more Callie’s story than Millie’s, and Millie’s whole focus is kissing some boy. Nick said he wants to tell the characters to ask themselves what’s really important (but that may be his adult self looking back and not remembering high school accurately).

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  8. Do you think a teen reading it would feel the message was too pushy, the wokeness too handy, or would just learn from it? I’m never sure these days when I come across this issue. But it’s great that authors are trying to put across good messages. The balance is hard to achieve, though. I know I accept Barbara Kingsolver’s novels as they are but some people find them unbearably preachy. Just random thoughts there, sorry!

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    • Actually, these are great thoughts, ones that I discussed with a different blogger on her site! We were talking about how I read Kingsolver’s memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and how I felt it was so preachy to the point of being unrealistic. Kingsolver suggests that everyone can eat food grown within 100 miles of them if they’d just be willing to fill their apartment balconies with planters, etc. I mean, who can grow enough on their apartment balcony to can and eat the whole winter?? Anyway, I’m not sure what teens would think of it. It appears that the book is successful, but I know a lot of adults read YA. Book blogger Jackie @ Death By Tusndoku said that her nieces and nephews talk about objectification and not expecting people who are different from them to explain their differences.

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  9. When I was growing up, YA fiction – British, there wasn’t much Australian – was all about Empire, White Man’s Burden, basically preparing young men to be good (and unquestioning) soldiers. But I was an adult before I realised that that was what the author was grooming me for. I think YAs, like everyone, gloss over or roll their eyes at overt preaching and get on with following the story. And way back up the comment stream – Yes! I too believe YA fiction is inherently inauthentic BECAUSE it is written by adults.

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    • I always wonder what kind of book a young adult would write. I mean, the writing may not be sophisticated, I get that. But what would the plot be about? What would the characters decide to do?

      It’s really scary to think that books were preparing teens to be soldiers, but I know it’s true. I know that some military branches use video games to entice teen boys to enlist–anything to subtly persuade without being forthright.

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      • Oh, good question! I’ve read a couple of my daughter’s stories (she doesn’t always let me read them), and they are largely fantasy or dystopian types stories, where the character/s find themselves in another world, or the future. The only time there’s been romance was when she wrote a fan fiction story about Simon from Simon vs. the Homo Sapien Agenda. Right now, I think she’s focused on environmental disaster stories, but I haven’t read them yet. It takes her months to write a story.

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  10. I think a lot of YA is focused on the kiss – it’s probably not just the fat girls who are focused on it. Although, I’m definitely not an expert!
    I loved Millie’s character in Dumplin’ – it’s too bad Puddin’ is more focused on Callie. And it’s weird that she doesn’t write about them engaging in social media.
    I wonder if youth are more “woke” than we think… I’m often surprised by what my own children say (and correct me on!).

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    • True, it seems like YA is either about getting the kiss or saving the entire planet. Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku pointed out that her nieces and nephews say some pretty savvy stuff about social justice. If I’m wrong, I’m happy to be wrong on this one.

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  11. Bummer! It sounds like Puddin’ missed the mark & had the potential to be so much more. I didn’t realize that one of the perspectives was of Callie & that she is the focus of the growth and development in the novel.

    “For someone who thinks the news is her life, SHE NEVER ENGAGES WITH IT. This book is neutered from current politics, even local stuff. Millie doesn’t watch, read, or listen to any news.”

    This is unfortunate. There was so much potential here to have a YA female character that had a passion in something more substantial than a boy…

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  12. Interesting! I haven’t gotten around to reading Dumplin’ yet (or watching the Netflix movie), but this sequel sounds like a mess. Especially when you mention it being set in a small conservative town and yet the characters ideas seem to be somewhat modern and influenced by social media, but yet it is never mentioned that they use social media. Strange! And also strange that if Millie is all about news that she is never written as watching it, etc. Almost sounds like anything that could’ve dated the book (various social media, any references to politics, etc) was taken out of it.

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    • I hadn’t thought about Murphy trying to keep it all contemporary references because it’s YA, but you may be right. A while ago, I pointed out the uptick in books set in the 80s because they allow the writer to leave out all references that would date the book. And, if it’s a thriller, that cuts out the internet and cell phones.

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