Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
Published: 2011, Scholastic, Inc.
Genre: Young Adult Realistic Fiction, Satire
“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.”
En route to an island getaway where pageant contestants are to prepare for their big event, the plane carrying the contestants for the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant crashes. The majority of the contestants die, as do all the adult sponsors, leaving about a dozen teen girls to figure out how to survive while they wait to be rescued.
Beauty Queens defies any easy classification. It is partially a survival story, as the girls learn to build shelters, fish, and (gasp!) eat grubs. It has dystopian leanings, as the world in which the girls inhabit is run by the totalitarian Corporation, which attempts to control all aspects of its citizens’ lives, especially the females. It has a tendency towards the fantastical, as the island comes alive with man-eating snakes, a mysteriously lighting volcano, and conspiracy theories galore. It is feminist through the depictions of its lead females and their actions, hopes, and needs. And it’s also pure satire, with all the Corporation propaganda and the comments on beauty and power.
Attempting to combine all of these elements could have been a complete disaster. Thankfully, however, that was not the case.
The narration switches between many different characters, the majority of whom are stranded beauty pageant contestants. From cynical Adina of New Hampshire to rule-following and fanatical Taylor of Texas, readers are introduced to a wide variety of girls with different interests, stories, and reasons they chose to compete. All of the girls can be seen as extremes in some way, and yet each also possesses her relatable qualities.
The book is the strongest when focusing on the girls and their struggles to make the most of their situation. Learning how to live without their Corporation-mandated beauty products is challenge enough, but over the course of the novel the girls also learn to accept those parts of themselves they’d rather keep hidden. By and large this is an empowering story of their physical, mental, and emotional changes.
Although this is primarily a story about the growth of the girls, there are other threads and plot lines woven through. While these other elements have a major role in the story’s conflict and ultimate conclusion, for the most part they felt a bit distanced from the story as a whole. And frankly, in a story dealing primarily with female empowerment, they just weren’t as interesting. The way these aspects were resolved at the end also felt a bit too convenient, a bit too neat.
Libba Bray narrates her own story here, which was delightful to hear. Her accents may have been exaggerated from time to time, but having the story narrated by the person who actually wrote it, who knows what to say, when to say it, and how to say it, is a powerful thing indeed.
But it is important to note that the author here is not the same author as the one who wrote the Gemma Doyle trilogy or The Diviners. Well, yes, Libba Bray is the same person, but she’s showing a completely different authorial side here. And, by and large, it’s a very successful one.
Recommended for those who enjoy a clever satire, and who don’t mind the tendency this satire has to go over the top in its messages. Because, despite the satire, this really is a positive, feel-good book about girls finding confidence in themselves and supporting one another.
Rating: 4 stars