If I had to pick one genre of books that I love more than any other, it might just be Young Adult fiction. Just kidding, I could never pick only one…but YA books definitely are near the top of the list. I’m not really discriminatory in my YA tastes, as I’ll read (almost) anything, even the trashiest of trash (Sweet Valley High, anyone?). However, I’m always on the lookout for good YA fiction, the kind that’s really just a good piece of writing, not just a good piece of writing for teens.
Beauty Queens is one of those books. I’d never read anything by Libba Bray, although I’ve heard great things about her other works and I’ll definitely be checking them out now. I’m shocked that it took me so long, because her writing embodies everything I love about good YA fiction: it’s super-smart, funny, and sassy.
Beauty Queens opens with a plane filled with fifty teen pageant girls crashing onto a seemingly deserted island. Only about a quarter of these girls survive the crash. These include Taylor, a stereotypical blonde bitch; Adina, who thinks pageants are a waste of time; Nicole and Shanti, who are competing as the only two girls “of color,”; Jennifer, a juvenile delinquent; and several others. Each of these girls is grappling with her own secret identity (for some, it’s as innocent as wanting to be a doctor, for others, it’s a question of sexuality), and must deal with her own personal problems while surviving on an island, while also putting up with the other girls. There’s also the issue of the nefarious plots being carried out on the other side of the island by a group of unknown men, who pose a threat to the girls’ safety. Throw in a group of reality-TV sexy pirates, a caricature of Kim-Jong Il named Momo B. Chacha, and hallucinogenic berries, and an evil organization simply named “The Corporation” (messages from this group are scattered throughout the book, giving disclaimers and advertising various products), and you’ve got the basic gist of the plot.
This book reminded me a bit of the work of authors like George Saunders, who writes about vaguely dystopian worlds that are still recognizable as our own. Beauty Queens has a satirical tone, taking on everything from beauty products to reality television, presenting them as bizarre, warped versions of what we know today. The footnotes that explain the cultural references the girls make are one of the best parts of the book, and are absolutely hilarious. Bray also has dozens of biting one-liners, and manages to make her out-there scenarios (which might have fallen flat in the hands of another author) laugh-out-loud funny.
Beyond the fact that the book is incredibly entertaining, I loved the ultimate message that it delivers. The whole book is about self-discovery and empowerment, about self-acceptance and the rejection of societal norms. Bray’s characters start out as one-note and superficial, and grow into women who love themselves regardless of their quirks and flaws. I wasn’t expecting to find such a positive feminist message in this book, and it really made me happy to see that someone is taking on these issues in a way that’s accessible to young women (and hell, older women too). Beauty Queens is so refreshing, and so important, in a world dominated by the Kardashians and Snooki; Bray is advocating for women to be real, not just plastic, brainless, homogenous bodies. As one of the pageant girls says near the end of the book, “feminism is for everybody and there’s nothing wrong with taking up space in the world, even if you have to fight for it a little bit.” For that alone, this book (and Bray herself) won me over completely.
I highly recommend this novel.