“The inspiration for all of my books will almost always be me wanting to see characters in fat bodies navigating all kinds of narratives,” Julie Murphy tells EW. “Dear Sweet Pea is no different.”
The best-selling author of Dumplin’ (recently adapted into the Jennifer Aniston-starring film) and Ramona Blue has broken out in YA fiction with a message. And her books continue to resonate for so much more: their plucky characters, their irresistible sweetness, their delightful sense of humor. Now the author is returning with a new novel that carries her signature appeal, this time in the middle-grade space: Dear Sweet Pea.
The book centers on Patricia “Sweet Pea” DiMarco, a seventh grader who, as Murphy teased on Twitter last year, “intercepts letters for her town’s advice column and answers them while dealing [with] her parents divorce.”
Dear Sweet Pea publishes Oct. 1 (and is available for pre-order), but EW caught up with Murphy for an exclusive preview of the book. Check out the cover below, and read on for our interview, where we touch on the new book’s inspiration, Murphy’s Hollywood success, and much more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the inspiration behind Dear Sweet Pea?
JULIE MURPHY: The inspiration for all of my books will almost always be me wanting to see characters in fat bodies navigating all kinds of narratives, and Dear Sweet Pea is no different. I’ve really wanted to write for a younger audience for a long time. Seeing reader response for Dumplin’ and [its companion] Puddin’ pour in has been so rewarding — in fact one of the catalysts that set Dear Sweet Pea in motion was a reader email from a mother who’d watched as her daughter obsessively read Dumplin’. The mother then decided to pick up the book and find out what the fuss was about and in the end, she found herself reconsidering all the ways she talked to her daughter about her body and even how she talked about her own body in front of her daughter. I couldn’t help but think about my own relationship with my mother and how the way she would criticize her own body in casual ways really shaped how I valued my body in those early years. Dear Sweet Pea doesn’t tackle body image in the same head-on way Dumplin’ and Puddin’ do. But there are moments when Sweet Pea has to confront what it means to be a fat girl and then there are times when she’s just an average seventh grader, and both of those things are equally important and truly inspired me in bringing this book to life.
What can you tell us about your new heroine?
Patricia “Sweet Pea” DiMarco is in her final days of seventh grade. She, along with her best friend, Oscar, is obsessed with a spooky syndicated TV show called America’s Most Haunted. She’s a little bit too nosy and oftentimes thinks she’s got it all figured out — and she loves her cat, Cheese. She’s also dedicated herself to wearing black-and-white striped shirts every day because she once heard that geniuses wear the same thing every day. Like most of us, she tends to go a little harder on her mom than she does on her dad, and on top of all those things, she’s a fat girl with bushy eyebrows and unruly hair. She exists outside of just being a fat girl, but being a fat girl still shapes her world without dominating it.
I love the advice column setting — are you an avid reader of them?
I love advice columns so much! I remember reading the letters to the editor and advice columns in all my favorite magazines as a teen and, of course, I’m a big Dear Sugar fan. I’ve never written into an advice column, but as a kid, I wrote to Oprah several times. Once I even wrote to her asking her to reunite a close friend with her estranged father. I couldn’t have been older than 9 or 10, and in hindsight I’m so glad her producers didn’t respond. Can you imagine what a pickle that would have been for my unsuspecting friend? I thought I was putting together the surprise of the century! There’s a little bit of that arrogance too in Sweet Pea. And isn’t it always easier to fix everyone else’s problems instead of your own?
What kind of issues do you bring up in this book that you hope readers connect to?
I think there’s a little something in here for everyone — body image and queer identity come to mind — but the thing that resonated with me the most was how Sweet Pea grows as she watches her parents grow into two separate people rather than the unit they’ve always been. It’s easy, as children, to forget that our parents even existed before we were born, but even though living through her parents’ divorce is painful, it’s an eye-opening experience for Sweet Pea and a good reminder that family and love take many different shapes.
You’re coming off the success of Dumplin’s Netflix premiere — what has that experience been like, seeing your story hit the screen and a whole new audience respond to it?
Thankful. It’s the word that’s been ringing in my ears for months now. This movie had been three years in the making and I could never fully imagine this moment when Dumplin’ would be out there for the everyone to experience on screen. And of course it’s always great to bring new readers into the fold! I mean, the other night I watched Dolly Parton perform her original song, “Red Shoes,” on the Grammys where she mentions characters from the book and movie by name. I have to pinch myself every day!
Give us a tease of something in Dear Sweet Pea that will have fans excited for more.
My favorite Easter egg in Dear Sweet Pea is that it’s actually set in the same universe as Dumplin’ and Puddin’, in the neighboring town of Valentine, Texas. There’s one small character crossover, but that’s pretty much where the similarities stop. Still it was fun to imagine Willowdean and the whole gang just down the road!