Reviewed by Barb Biggs, BCPL branch manager
“Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching them so they can be who they really are.” – Libba Bray, Beauty Queens
The premise of Libba Bray’s young adult book Beauty Queens sounds like a new twist on the classic Lord of the Flies: A plane carrying 50 contestants from the Miss Teen Dream Pageant crash lands on a (maybe) deserted island and the girls must figure out how to survive until, or if, they are rescued. If you are familiar with Libba Bray, you will know immediately that it just won’t be so simple as girls succumbing to a hierarchy forced by circumstance. Bray’s books have real heroines – and I hope that I will be forgiven by the legions of Twihards out there – but her girls are the anti-Bella Swan. Bray’s other popular works include The Great and Terrible Beauty trilogy (also highly recommended) and her Printz-award winning Going Bovine.
At the heart of this satire is everything teens have grown up with: reality television, corporate sponsorship, and the constantly unattainable notion of feminine “perfection.” While that sounds heavy, Bray tackles it with humor, and where it seems that characters might fall into a stereotype, she gives the reader truly three-dimensional characters who learn and grow.
After crashing onto the island, the girls build huts with the plane wreckage (tastefully decorated, of course) and continue practicing their dance routines and interview questions, oblivious that on the other side of the island, The Corporation (the multi-national corporate conglomerate that sponsors Miss Teen Dream), is brokering a secret arms deal with the Republic of ChaCha, sworn enemy to the United States and ruled by a sort-of-familiar figure, MoMo B. ChaCha. He is Elvis-obsessed and more than a little bit crazy. On the other side of the arms deal is Ladybird Hope, a presidential contender and serial self-promoter. After the girls start exploring the island (and after the boatload of gorgeous pirates are also shipwrecked) they start to put together what is going on between Ladybird and MoMo.
Also a fun part of this book are the Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts Pages and the footnotes that Bray provides to describe products and television shows (all Corporation created, of course). An example of one of her notes: “Bridal Death Match, the popular TV show about brides who cage fight each other in order to win the wedding of their dreams.” And really, that sounds like something we might actually see on television, doesn’t it?
This is a young adult book, and with the themes that Bray tackles, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to older girls. I think younger girls might not realize what exactly Bray skewers and why. But I think it’s an important book, and while I am, ahem, just a bit out of my teen years, I loved it and would also recommend it to women of all ages. It is empowering and funny. I also highly recommend this title on audio. Bray brings her own characters to life and she does a phenomenal job with accents and characterization. There is a funny little intro on each disc, done in a breathy Marilyn Monroe-type voice, and I don’t know about other audiophiles, but I always appreciate knowing when I’ve come to the end of a disc. There is also a nice interview with Bray after the epilogue, and she talks about her inspiration, her writing career, and many other things. It’s worth a listen, especially if you have an interest in young adult literature.
So, if a hilarious young adult satire about empowerment, consumer culture, politics, and evil multi-national corporations appeal to you, check out Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. You can find it at the library in book and audio format. Just click here to put it on hold.