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Can an Advice Columnist Help This Middle Schooler?

Before her parents’ divorce, Patricia “Sweet Pea” DiMarco’s favorite family tradition was reading a popular advice column called “Miss Flora Mae I?” over breakfast. Her father read the questions aloud, while Sweet Pea and her mother took turns coming up with advice. Sweet Pea’s mother is a therapist, and Sweet Pea finds her advice “a little too perfect. The kind of stuff that sounds easy but is hard to actually do.” Sweet Pea’s style is more practical. “Nobody’s perfect. What’s the use in pretending?”

Now that her parents have split up, Sweet Pea sees a lot of pretending going on. Her father has come out as gay, and even though he and her mother are the best of friends, and he has moved two doors away to a house nearly identical to her mother’s, right down to the wallpaper, Sweet Pea’s no fool. Everything has changed, and she doesn’t like it.

DEAR SWEET PEA (Balzer + Bray, 288 pp., $16.99; ages 8 to 12) is the first middle-grade novel by the popular young adult author Julie Murphy. Much like “Dumplin’,” Murphy’s best-selling Y.A. novel, “Dear Sweet Pea” is set in a small Texas town and touches on themes of self-acceptance, tolerance and inclusivity. (The two fictional worlds collide, briefly, when Sweet Pea’s mother mentions Callie Reyes, Willowdean Dickson’s nemesis in “Dumplin’” and a star of its sequel, “Puddin’.”) Sweet Pea identifies herself as fat, and has come to accept and embrace it. She is upset that the local mall doesn’t carry stylish clothes in her size, and she’s even more upset when her mother embarrasses her by lecturing the sales staff on the misogynistic lies perpetuated by “the patriarchy.” But Sweet Pea’s story is not about body issues. It’s about the normal ups and downs of middle school friendship and family life, as experienced by a funny, likable 13-year-old girl who happens to be fat.

Sweet Pea has a knack for giving advice to other people, but when it comes to her own problems, she needs help. Three years earlier her best friend, Kiera, ditched her for a group of cooler girls, and has been mean to her ever since. Now, as seventh grade draws to a close, Kiera invites the whole class — everyone except Sweet Pea — to her birthday party. Sweet Pea assumes that her current best friend, Oscar, has been snubbed too. So when she finds out that he received an invitation and didn’t tell her, she feels betrayed. Later, when Sweet Pea and Kiera rekindle their friendship, Oscar feels threatened, and Sweet Pea finds herself juggling two best friends who don’t get along.

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