NYT bestselling author Julie Murphy’s latest book, Pumpkin (Balzer + Bray), is a charming, life-affirming and glittering high school graduation gift to her scores of young adult readers and new fans of all ages.
Waylon Brewer, aka Pumpkin, an 18-year-old openly gay senior with secret drag queen aspirations, narrates the unexpected trajectory of his final weeks at Clover City High School. He attempts to be inconspicuous and not make waves — a difficult feat for this self-described hulking, 6’3”, 300+ pounds, effeminate gay boy with pumpkin orange hair. Enduring twelve years of bullying and ridicule from his peers and repressing his natural exuberance has caused Waylon to distrust friendly overtures as he burrowed into the cocoon of his small inner circle. He even rejects membership in the school’s LGBTQ Prism club!
His very survival, thus far, has been intertwined with his best friend, soulmate and fraternal twin sister Clementine, or Clem, who often acts as Waylon’s buffer. She’s a chameleon, nearly able to blend in with the student body. Only her signature long, orange braids, teal suede Doc Martens and steady girlfriend — a confident, combat boot-wearing feminist named Hannah Perez who readers may remember from Dumplin’ — set her apart from the masses. From the cradle, they have shared their entire lives: their innermost secrets and their plans to escape Clover City immediately after graduation. They even share Beulah, a well-used cobalt blue single cab pickup truck they got for their sixteenth birthday.
HIT ‘EM WITH THAT DRAG QUEEN CONFIDENCE
When all else fails, Waylon copes by binge-watching The Fiercest of Them All, his favorite television drag show, dreaming of a future that includes performing drag himself. Surely he can get through the last few weeks before graduation without incurring a personal disaster?
When his closeted, secret boyfriend dumps him, and Clem abruptly changes post-graduation plans, Waylon is desperate to hold onto what’s left of his shattered fantasies. He dons make-up and creates a rudimentary audition video for his favorite show, introducing his drag alter ego, Pumpkin Patch. One internet fumble later, the video goes viral and the entire school witnesses his baby drag queen coming out. Within days, as a cruel joke and history-making gender reversal, Pumpkin is nominated for Prom Queen with Hannah for Prom King.
School bullies exist. You can allow them to persist or laugh in their faces … or bloody a nose or two along the way. The friends decide the best revenge is to embrace the challenge and run for prom court in their inimitable style with a mixture of pixie dust, glitter and hard work. It’s time for Waylon to take chances, make friends and allies, and stop deferring living his life to the fullest.
SMALL TOWN AMERICA HAS NEVER LOOKED THIS COLORFUL
Clover City is populated with enough singular, quirky personalities and endearing, eccentric characters to fill a jumbo-sized box of Froot Loops — and I can’t get enough of them. The football, pageant and prom-obsessed teens (and adults), as well as a few religious conservatives who would like to “pray the gay away,” are similar to some folks in my own small town. Although, its former biker bar, The Hideaway, with regularly scheduled all-age drag shows is a rather unusual addition to Bible-belt communities.
Nevertheless, the small town is believable. Clover City is home to a mixture of hard-working individuals, middle-class and blue-collar alike. Some students are being raised by both parents while others are from single-family homes or are being raised by grandparents, and several students work to supplement the family income.
MURPHY’S SHOWSTOPPER HAS SO MUCH HEART
Murphy has a clear, positive voice, which affirms individuality, purpose, body positivity and inclusivity. With a recent study citing that nearly 30% of gay teens have attempted suicide, we need writers like Murphy to provide encouragement and to educate through affirming stories like that of Waylon’s adventures in the weeks ahead of the senior prom.
Pumpkin completes Murphy’s trilogy that began with Dumplin’, also a popular Netflix movie, and continued with Puddin’. The three work as standalone novels aimed at a young adult audience. They are timely, well written and would be ideal selections for adult, library-sponsored book clubs and online groups such as the Sixties Plus Reading Room. This new fan hopes Murphy will consider writing a fourth related novel, perhaps, set a decade into the future to allow us to catch up with these sweet, quirky teens.