I’ll admit it: I didn’t know how to fairly judge this bracket. On the one hand, you have Neal Shusterman’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature-winning Challenger Deep. On the other hand, Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’. Maybe you’re not seeing the problem. Maybe the National Book Award solves all the problems for you, if you’re judging. But it wasn’t nearly so easy for me.
Challenger Deep is, at first, a disjointed book about Caden Bosch and another Caden, who is a shipmate on a strange ocean-going ship. Caden Bosch has friends, goes to school, draws, and walks. He walks a lot. He walks, seemingly trying to escape a feeling he can’t really name, while his parents worry about him. Shipmate Caden, on the other hand, is trying to survive an ocean voyage with a treacherous Captain and his annoying parrot. It’s hard to make the connection between the two Cadens, but as the story deepens, it becomes clear they’re the same kid. Even so, I just didn’t care about shipmate Caden. I wanted to! I knew, by mid-book, why shipmate Caden existed, and the way Shusterman enmeshed the two Cadens really worked. The trick of putting the hospital and ship together worked beautifully too. But I didn’t love the book, ultimately. I loved things about the book. The illustrations are a nice addition, and really illustrate the book in more than decorative ways. Caden’s experiences and thoughts are vivid, though his supporting cast is a little cardboard-like, at times. The end of the book felt just right to me, even in its brutality. But I say again: I just didn’t love this book. Do I think it’s an important book? Yes, it very well might be. Is it well-written? Yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of good here.
Dumplin’ is seemingly more frivolous than Challenger Deep. Willowdean (Dumplin’) Dickson, a Texan, Dolly Parton-loving fat girl–well, she checked all my boxes for a heroine. So what if her act of defiance is wearing a red dress at a teenage Beauty Pageant? Willowdean and her friends’ visit to a drag show in Texas is one of the most fun scenes I remember reading in 2015. Willowdean’s careful, broken love for her Aunt Lucy touches my soul, and her contentious, not-good-enough relationship with her pageant-queen mother hurts me deeply. She’s not perfect; you can’t love the way she treats some of her “friends” in the book, though you can love where she’s at with them by the end of the book. And when Bo kisses Willowdean? I almost can’t stand it, it’s so good. I can’t deny it, I actively love Willowdean. She’s the kind of fierce, wonderful fat girl that I wanted to be as a teenager. I had a hard time figuring out how to write about my love for this book, because I really just want to push Dumplin’ into the hands of all the girls and women I know and make them read it immediately. I’m certain they’ll understand if they just read it. All the love I couldn’t muster for Caden Bosch I pour into Willowdean Dickson. I pity Caden Bosch. I adore Willowdean Dickson. And I think that shows you that I’m the right audience for Dumplin’. I think Dumplin’s audience IS me, and girls like me. I am made to love this book. And I do. I love it so so so much. It’s possibly my favorite YA book I read in 2015.
So you see, this wasn’t a fair fight. It most likely wasn’t possible for me to love any book more than Dumplin’, no matter how good it was. I tried really hard to keep an open mind about Challenger Deep, and I do think it’s a really remarkable book. But it’s not Dumplin’. And because I’m me, I just have to give this round to Willowdean Dickson. She didn’t win that Beauty Pageant, but she can win this round of the Tournament of Books, at least.
WINNER: DUMPLIN’ BY JULIE MURPHY
Reviewed by Angela Romano, Oak Lawn Public Library