Book review: ‘Beauty Queens’ by Libba Bray

After a crash sends a plane full of beauty pageant contestants onto a desert island, the teen girls aboard begin to take inventory of what has survived. A few renegade hair appliances and makeup? Check. Only about a dozen girls from the original fifty competing? Also check, unfortunately. And anything else?

Just drama. You can’t kill drama off.

The young women vying for the title of Miss Teen Dream must put aside their competitive natures and band together to survive, and the results are often funny — or sad. Each teen carries her own set of worries, insecurities and issues, and most have something to hide. Led by the indefatigable Taylor, Miss Texas, we journey across the island with the girls as they uncover shady dealings and terrible plots, and we’re left picking up the wreckage. Literally.

Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens is a tongue-in-cheek, witty and over-the-top exploration of so many themes, it’s hard to nail them all down in a single paragraph. We have feminism, sexism, racism; we have GLBT issues, equality and the idea of achieving an impossible standard of beauty. We also deal with sex as a means for self-esteem and low self-esteem that stems from unrealistic expectations. But despite the bevy of Big Issues happening here, Bray managed to draw me into a fast-paced story and get me invested in characters I wasn’t sure I would like.

Everyone has an idea of what a “beauty queen” looks like, acts like, sounds like. We’ve seen the clips of young women getting tongue-tied and embarrassing themselves with bad answers, and there’s some sadistic pleasure we might take in their failure. It’s as if to say, “No, you can’t have it all, chickadee. You can’t be smart and beautiful. You can’t be witty and sexy. Take your pick.”

Bray teaches us to ignore that impulse, of course, and peek behind the sparkly evening gowns (so to speak). My favorite Teen Dreamer was Adina, Miss Massachusetts, and I have an inkling that Bray herself is most like this contestant. Snarky and skeptical, Adina has a chip on her shoulder and something to prove — like everyone there, of course. Whether they’re trying to mollify an overeager stage parent, prove their worth beyond the perfect arch of an eyebrow or earn money for college, every woman is clawing for the title. But they start to realize there’s more to life than a beauty-based championship.

Beauty Queens is rife with pop culture references and allusions to contemporary events, and the event’s mastermind Ladybird Hope is a power-hungry manipulator who seems to channel Sarah Palin. These references felt a bit “Where’s Waldo?” to me; I was constantly trying to spot them. But they didn’t distract from an otherwise colorful story.

Was the book campy, dramatic and borderline ridiculous? Yes. Implausible and pretty unrealistic, too. But Bray, a masterful writer, knows this — and there’s a huge difference between wanting a book to be tongue-in-cheek and just having it be silly. The dramatic plot revelations kept me on my toes, and I was able to sink back and enjoy the story for what it was: a deadpan look at society and femininity, all told through the lens of unique and multifaceted women. The sheer amount of characters was overwhelming, but I did feel like I got to know most of them well.

A thought-provoking read that I finished quickly, though not one I’d recommend to everyone. Though Beauty Queens tackles heavy ideas with a lighter touch, the heaviness does remain. And though I wasn’t thrilled with the cheesy epilogue, I appreciated that Bray tied up loose ends for us. A worthwhile book for summer and teen readers, especially, who might appreciate realistic heroines preaching the good word of Just Be Yourself.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0439895979 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher

Win Libba Bray’s ‘Beauty Queens’

If you’re looking for a laugh-out-loud, hilarious and action-packed young adult read this summer, you’ll want to peer a little closer at this post — because Libba Bray delivers. Her new novel Beauty Queens, a satirical look at a beauty contest that begins with a plane crash, is too witty and fun not to be discussed.

With vivid characters, a unique premise and a shameless skewering of American pop culture and politics, it’s an intelligent and compulsively readable book that I’ll be sharing often this summer — including with all of you! A little more about the novel:

The fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream Pageant thought this was going to be a fun trip to the beach, where they could parade in their state-appropriate costumes and complete in front of the cameras. But sadly, their airplane had another idea, crashing on a desert island and leaving the survivors stranded with little food, little water, and practically no eye liner.

What’s a beauty queen to do? Continue to practice for the talent portion of the program — or wrestle snakes to the ground? Get a perfect tan — or learn to run wild? And what should happen when the sexy pirates show up?

Welcome to the heart of non-exfoliated darkness. Your tour guide? None other than Libba Bray, the hilarious, sensational, Printz Award-winning author of A Great and Terrible Beauty and Going Bovine. The result is a novel that will make you laugh, make you think, and make you never see beauty the same way again.

Two copies of Beauty Queens are kindly being shared by the publisher; just fill out this form for entry. The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only from Thursday, June 23 to Tuesday, June 28, when I will randomly choose and email two winners. Comments on this post are welcomed, but will not count as entry.

NEW: Congrats to Erin of Erin Reads and Allison M., lucky winners of Beauty Queens! Ladies, I’ve emailed you for your addresses.