Friday, May 27, 2011

Beauty Queens

By Libba Bray

Three Things I Liked About Beauty Queens:
1. The pirates from the hit reality TV show Captains Bodacious, who also end up marooned on the island.
2. Miss Texas (and the other Misses).
3. The dialogue and narrative voice.

So I know I usually complain about the hideous covers of young adult novels, but I actually like this one. It’s sassy and creative and doesn’t quite show the model’s face, though if you look closely at the top you get some chin and mouth action. But I can forgive it that.

Libba Bray is becoming known for writing zany, eccentric stories with heart. Her last novel, Going Bovine, which won the prestigious Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature*, was about a boy who gets mad cow disease. When he embarks on a fantastical road trip with a garden gnome as a companion, the question becomes: Is the whole trip a hallucination, or just the fantastical elements, like fire-breathing dragons and feisty fairy girls?

Beauty Queens is no less extravagant. It’s pretty much Lord of the Flies meets the Miss America pageant. The contestants for Miss Teen Dream are being flown to the beachfront location of the pageant when they crash land on an apparently deserted island. The flight attendants, cameramen, and handlers all perish, as do over half of the 50 wannabe Miss Teen Dreams. Stranded with no adults, no civilization, no audience or rescue squad, and lacking their customary arsenal of beauty supplies, will these beauty queens hold on to their Teen Dream, or will they go native? Beauty Queens is, ultimately, a girl power novel about finding and being true to yourself. It’s also about showing society where they can stick their unrealistic standards.

I knew going in that this is an outlandish, somewhat campy novel, and you kind of just have to buckle your seatbelt and get ready to go along for the ride (trusting that it won’t see you crash-landed with the pageant tribe), but there were some things that were just a bit too much to take. The surviving girls had sustained injuries in the crash ranging from gashes to broken arms, to the horrific mental image of Miss New Mexico with an airplane tray lodged in her forehead. But these are not given much attention. Bray never acknowledges how the girls deal with their gashes, only references a messy job done setting the broken arm with one girl’s pre-pre-med knowledge of medicine, and leaves the tray in Miss New Mexico’s forehead for the duration of the novel… how she survives several weeks in the treacherous jungle climate of the island without medical attention is not explained, nor even acknowledged. And even though I know full well that such technical details of their survival are not the point of this book… I couldn’t quite get over it. I kept thinking about Miss New Mexico and that horrible tray. How did she swim in the ocean? What if she bumped her hand against a low-hanging branch? Turned over in her sleep? There are so many perils that could befall even the most able-bodied person in this situation, much less a beauty queen with a tray in her head!! Okay. Sorry for talking so much about the tray thing. It just gets under my skin, that’s all.

Also, as much as I support the statements Bray is making in the novel – live on your own terms, not for society’s expectations; corporate America is getting out of hand; so is materialism and reality TV, etc. – they were hit-you-over-the-head overt. Again, I know this just part of the novel’s style, but it didn’t quite work for me. Additionally, I don’t want to stereotype beauty queens… but I will confess that I kind of doubt that in any one batch of pageant contestants, there would be quite so many hiding their loud-and-proud girl-power lights under a bushel, or using the pageant for their own ends. For a novel so eager to break stereotypes… there were a lot of Types in it, the kind of Types that are supposed to be the anti-Types, but really just become Types of their own. Finally, considering that this was a book about beauty queens being stranded Lord of the Flies-style on an island, it had a déjà vu quality to it that I think was the result of the very Bond-esque nature of The Corporation** subplot – and we all know Bond movies are not known for originality of plot.

But all in all, Beauty Queens was a witty and entertaining read, with quick dialogue, likable (if somewhat unrealistic) characters, perfect for the post-finals academic detox. I would recommend it to fans of young adult literature that doesn’t pander to the damsel-in-distress/paranormal romance/shallow drivel that takes up most of the young adult section these days.

*Which John Green won for Looking for Alaska in 2006.
**The Corporation is the company behind the Miss Teen Dream pageant, along with the entire slew of television programs, beauty products, and other commodities fake-advertised for in the novel. They are the enemy.

Books Read This Year: 47
Top 100 Progress: 44/100

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