Libba Bray does Miss America: Beauty Queens

Not long ago Bitch magazine posted their top 100 YA books for feminist readers. You can check out the list here.* If  I was going to compile a similar list, Libba Bray’s latest would be sitting pretty as Queen Mother of the feminist YA books. Libba Bray is fully embracing her quirky side these days. Fans of the Gemma Doyle trilogy were left scratching their heads when Going Bovine came out, a strange romp of a road trip that surprised many when it won the Printz award.** Clearly she was just paving the way for her next doozy of a book, Beauty Queens.

Imagine Lost crossed with America’s Next Top Model. Sounds like a TV show parody penned by Tina Fey for 30 Rock, no? Such is the premise for Beauty Queens, minus the time travel and Tyra Banks. A plane carrying the contestants of Miss Teen Dream crashes on an island and the girls are left to fend for themselves. As we have learned from Lost, an island is never *just* an island, and so there is a secret base, not quite military, that is in the middle of preparing for something called Operation Peacock, involving the leader of a country improbably called MoMo ChaCha, and the most famous Miss Teen Dream winner ever, Ladybird Hope, who feels a little bit like Sarah Palin on steroids. While the survivors await rescue, they learn to fish, create an irrigation system, build their own huts, and have life-changing moments, all the while practising their routines so they are “pageant ready” should the rescue crew arrive with cameras.

Bray bounces back and forth between the girls’ perspectives while also providing footnotes, screenplays for television ads, and each of the contestant’s Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts pages. All of these little extras appear to be sponsored by The Corporation, which controls the entertainment, make up, and health care industries and possibly the miliary as well. It’s reach is far and wide and not well defined. Bray is having a lot of fun at society’s expense, though there are enough genuine moments between the girls that the reader is able to make a personal connection to the story.

There is nothing subtle about this book. It is a multi-faceted attack on popular culture and how it targets young women. Bray rips into beauty pageants, reality TV, beauty products, religious fanaticism, conservatism, the boy band machine, consumerism, corporate culture, parenting, and so on.  It seems like every possible issue is present. There is a transgendered ex-boy band member; a so-called ‘Wild Girl’ who is dealing with the family curse of enjoying her sexuality too much by wearing a purity ring; a California teen who has fabricated her Indian background to appeal More Ethnic to better embody the American Dream and therefore walk away with the crown; a  gun-crazed military brat bent on perfection who is (naturally) from Texas; a brainy girl who avoids men because she doesn’t trust them only to have her first intimate encounter videotaped and broadcast on the internet by a reality-show pirate; newly-outed lesbians, and so, so much more. I’m exhausted just thinking about the vast ground Bray manages to cover, and with such style.

For some, the satire may be too strong. But the heart of the story is in the right place and there is no denying what a powerhouse writer Bray is. The book is full of laugh out loud scenes, killer dialogue, snappy one-liners, and enough you go girl moments to satisfy this feminist reader.

Beauty Queens will be available in hard cover from Scholastic  in May.

 * I thought this was an excellent list, despite the backlash, which you can read about here. At the very least it got people thinking about feminism in YA literature. 

** Generally the Printz winner is a Serious Book about Serious Issues. Not that there isn’t any *ahem* meat in Going Bovine (pun intended), but first and foremost it is a comedic novel, which is one of the reasons it was such a surprise, but well deserved, win.

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