Beauty Queens

by Libba Bray
ages: 15+
First sentence: “This book begins with a plane crash.”
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I have come to the conclusion that Libba Bray is brilliant, but completely insane. (Or maybe brilliantly insane?)

Ever wonder what you’d get if you mixed Lord of the Flies with the Miss America pageant, tossed in some James Bond, and slathered with a huge helping of satire on pop culture? Me, either. But, thankfully, blessedly, Libba Bray did, and Beauty Queens is the result.

The top 20 girls for the Miss Teen Dream pageant were all on a plane, headed toward the pageant finals when the plane crashes. On a deserted island. Killing everyone, except a handful of girls. What are they — girls who are beauty queens, presumably without any practical resources — to do?

Well… survive.

From here, the plot goes all twisty and turney: the girls make their own camp on the beach, and manage to not only get along (mostly), but thrive on their own merits as they wait to be rescued. However, things are not as pretty as they seem: there’s weird stuff lurking in them thar jungle, and those who go into it don’t always come out. And if they do, they’re not quite sane. There’s also pirates (!), stupid trust fund guys, completely wacked out dictators, and vengeful past beauty queens. This book has it all.

On the surface, the book is terribly shallow and stereotypical. Bray has lumped every single cultural reference and stereotype she could think of in this book: there is a lesbian, transgender, bisexual, stupid Southerner, aggressive Texan, Indian-American, black contestant. (Sure, why not one of each?) There’s a grand poking at everyone naming their kids Caitlin. Honestly: none of the characters are likeable (Miss Texas, I wanted to throttle! And Miss Mississippi just lived up to the low expectations I have of that state.), and the plot was fairly simplistic, which almost made it hard to get through (however, the hilarious footnotes made up for that).

But, when you read it as a satire, the book works brilliantly. In one of the more brilliant moves, there are commercial breaks in the book, in which Bray lampoons every single kind of beauty product, movie, and item that corporations try to sell to women. In the end, the book is not about the characters, or plot development, it’s about girl power: rising above the stereotypes and the product placement, and not only finding one’s true self, but acting on that, embracing the differences we have as women. (And no one is better than the other.)

In fact, I think this would be a blast to deconstruct in a book group or English class; there’s so much meat under the shallow surface, that the discussion could be quite fascinating.

And I’m sure she wrote it that way on purpose.

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