Sunday, July 10, 2011

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

One way you can just tell I was meant to be a librarian is I hate when people dog-ear book pages. I always use a bookmark. Also, unless I’m in a particularly difficult astronomy or technology class, you will never see me write in the margins, highlight, or alter the book in any way, shape, or form. My only occasional exception to this rule involves placing a Post-it with a note on it by a particular passage I have to go back to. I do this a lot with poetry anthologies, if I feel like there is a really good poem I should read again. I almost never do this with YA books. Libba Bray’s new book is covered in Post-its. Why? Because there are so many brilliant moments, passages, lines, and things I wanted to include in this review. 
This book is so many kinds of awesome, I don’t even know where to begin, or which Post-its I can ignore. With each book Bray writes, I become more and more impressed. Imagine the show America’s Next Top Model (ANTM), then imagine LOST, and then imagine some remarkable teen character writing (like that of John Green, David Levithan, Ann Brashares, or Megan McCafferty), and you are still not quite at this book’s greatness.
When I mentioned ANTM and LOST, I really was not kidding. This book starts with a plan crash. The plane is full of Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant contestants. In fact, only the Miss Teen Dream girls (and not all of them) survive the crash. What’s a group of teen beauty queens to do on a deserted island? Ration off beauty products, practice for the pageant, and of course feel grateful for the fact that they will loose weight. Soon the girls realize they might not be rescued for some time, and they learn to survive. It’s really interesting to see how the each girl’s back-story (and even pageant talent) comes into play for this ultimate test of survival.
They learn to use an evening gown as a way to filter rainwater. They learn how to make fishing nets, and other tools. They learn about what types of plants they can eat. And they have a sort of acid trip with the plants they learn not to eat. They learn eventually to stop competing with each other, though the competition between some of them is very entertaining. For instance, there are only two girls who are not white (Nicole, who is African American and Shanti, who is Indian), and their competition is just ridiculous because as Shanti explains to Nicole at one point, judges never let two brown girls into the final five. But eventually, they realize there are more important things to worry about then placing in Miss Teen Dream.
While there are some serious, thought-provoking moments, nothing can stay serious for too long because every now and then, there are sentences like, “The girls sat in the sand, sapped of all energy. Two contestants had salvaged pieces of metal from the downed plane and were using them as tanning reflectors” (49). 
And almost everything is commentary for how materialistic the world is. The book is full of commercial breaks, Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts Pages, and footnotes for pop culture references and advertisements. Everything seems to be product placement for something called the Corporation, which has it’s own shows, products, commercials, everything. And some of it is almost beautiful in how outrageous it is laid out. What do I mean? Read this passage from a TV interview with the most famous Miss Teen Dream winner, Ladybird Hope: “No! We said “Crack is wack!” and we made sure everybody could have guns instead of drugs. Back before the British were our friends, and they had a mean king who made us pay too much tax instead of just having hot princes who go to nightclubs, they wanted to keep us from bringing freedom to the people of Mexico and making it a state, and George Washington had to chop down a cherry tree and write the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and that’s the reason we fought World War II, and we keep fighting, because those freedom-hating people out there want to take away our right to be rich and good-lookin’…” (57-58). This character is someone many of the teens on the island look up to and aspire to be. She also was planning on running for president.
There’s island plant induced acid trips, pageant practice, hut making, weapons making (with beauty products), snake fighting, pirates (from a reality show), romance, and then there is politics! The whole reason the girls are not getting rescued, despite their signals, signs, and fame, is because they crashed on an island that’s about to be in the middle of an illegal arms deal. Ladybird Hope is involved, and so is an evil dictator (who has a taxidermy lemur named General Good Times). There’s secret hideouts inside volcanoes, romance with environmentalists, and plenty of growing up. And besides just having a great idea/story, Bray writes some fantastic characters. I actually came to love some of these beauty queens. There are some beautiful, pure YA lines, like “There was something about the island that made the girls forget who they had been. All those rules and shalt nots. They were no longer waiting for some arbitrary grade. They were no longer performing. Waiting. Hoping. They were becoming. They were” (177).
Between the feminism, the kidnappings, the sexy pirates, the weapons, and the growing freedom and friendships among these girls, there is no way I cannot give this book a 10/10. It’s amazing, and I really need to stop writing because I feel like I might not be able to stop praising this book if I continue.

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