Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. Scholastic Press, 405pp.
I should have hated this book.
I have a very low tolerance for “funny” books with wacky characters and thinly veiled parodies of real people and pop culture. I don’t like books that think they are movies, and I get frustrated when there are too many characters to follow. It grates on me when YA books get preachy and heavy handed.
Beauty Queens was all of these things, and also delved into a particular genre that infuriates me above all else. And yet, I loved every wacky, over-the-top, preachy bit of it.
Beauty Queens is about a group of teen pageant contestants whose plane crashes on an island. The few survivors work together to stay alive, and try to find a way to get back home.
The characters are, at first glance, well-worn stereotypes: the ditzy blonde who’s been in pageants since birth, the tough, sarcastic one who’s afraid to let people in, and the sweet Miss Congeniality contender with a double-barrel name from a farm in Nebraska. But it soon becomes apparent that not one of them (well, at least not one of the eight main characters) is what she seems, and each girl’s individual struggles become a launching pad for a lesson on feminism. That sounds pretty cringe-worthy, but it is executed perfectly, and I think that for a young reader who had not had much exposure to feminist thought, this book would be an excellent introduction.
It all gets a bit crazy at the end, and, to be honest, I’d say I probably would have given up if not for the charm of the author’s performance on the audiobook version. It’s all tied up pretty nicely though, and worth plodding through the arduous third act.
I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of Beauty Queens, as it’s one of the most well-produced and -performed audiobooks I have ever listened to. The author obviously knows her characters better than anyone else, and they come alive with her impressive voice acting skills. Sound effects and music bring the whole thing to life in a way that perfectly complements the book’s movie-written-down vibe.
One of the things I liked best about this book, as an aspiring YA author, is that, despite being published by Scholastic, it had a healthy dose of coarse language, sex and adult themes. Nothing that would be a shock to a young reader, but something that is more often than not shied away from in YA literature, at the expense of realism. It reminded me that, in writing my own novel-in-progress, I should stop worrying about that stuff, at least in the first draft.
I have never read anything by Libba Bray before, but I’ll certainly be back, once I get to the end of my formidable reading list.