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BOOK REVIEWS, Coming of Age, Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Middle Grade Readers, Navigating Difficult Life Situations

DEAR SWEET PEA by Julie Murphy

I had read Julie Murphy’s YA novel Dumplin’ and thought it had some really great insights into body image and body language (as in the words we use to talk about female bodies in particular). When I saw she had a new middle grade novel I was excited to get my hands on a copy. For the first three-quarters of the book I was completely engaged in Sweet Pea’s story, while at the same time thinking, “This is an amazing new voice for middle grade realistic fiction!” And then I reached the ending of the book. The ending felt like a letdown for me–not because it was necessarily “bad,” it just didn’t seem to reach the high caliber of all the story that came before it,so I finished with kind of a deflated feeling. Which is a bummer because the rest of the book is so good.

There is A LOT to love in Dear Sweet Pea. I adore the character of Sweet Pea, herself. She is a smart, funny 7th-grade girl dealing with a lot. She has all the body image/body changing issues, as well as the rapidly changing social landscape and the friendship pains that go with them that middle schoolers have to navigate. In addition she is trying to deal with her parents’ recent (very amicable) divorce after her father has come out as gay. She is confronting all these enormous, confusing issues in the context of a fairly small town where the luxury (and sometimes breathing room) of anonymity doesn’t exist.

The fact that Murphy allows Sweet Pea to address all these issues genuinely is a big piece of what makes most of this story brilliant in both its language and plot. Sweet Pea makes some choices in moments of the heightened emotional upheaval that cycles repeatedly through adolescence that are ill-advised, and sometimes mean-spirited. I have found that sometimes authors are reticent to allow their (main) adolescent characters to display characteristics or behaviors that could be criticized as unlikable. I believe that it is precisely Sweet Pea’s combination of insightful and ill-tempered motivations that make her so accessible to the middle grade reader. Everyone has moments when we are angry or hurting and do or say cruel things we don’t truly mean and regret. We’ve all been beset by feelings of guilt when we are SO angry with someone we love (and who we know loves us) and can’t find a way to reconcile such huge emotions simultaneously. Sweet Pea displays all of these moments. How many of us have tried to solve a problem and made it worse? Felt like we were drowning in the thoughts and feelings we ARE having, as opposed to the ones we think we SHOULD be having about a particular person or event?

Throughout most of the book Sweet Pea and her parents acknowledge the lack of definitive responses available for the questions and issues with which she is dealing. They also acknowledge that fact that sometimes misguided attempts result in unintended (and sometimes unpleasant) consequences. The fact that this fact seems recognized so openly is the main reason the ending did not sit well with me. The elderly neighbor, Flora Mae, who begins as an interesting secondary (even tertiary) character suddenly morphs into a cliched trope as a means to bring Sweet Pea’s story to a tidy conclusion. This frustrated me and felt like a departure from the story being told up to that moment.

Sweet Pea’s often-erratic swings between profound insight and feeling overwhelmed by life are typical of adolescence–particularly for girls. The raw honesty of Sweet Pea’s voice as she tries to cope with all of this is what makes her stand out to me as a remarkable and original character. The pat ending with a lack of any real consequences for some significantly inadvisable behavior on Sweet Pea’s part troubled me–probably more than it will a middle grade reader. Dear Sweet Pea has too many wonderful moments and opportunities for important discussion for me NOT to recommend it, and I do so, with the qualification that I was disappointed in the structure of the ending.

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