Miss Teen Dream contestants try to keep their spirits up after their plane goes down in a finalist for a 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize
Beauty Queens. By Libba Bray. Scholastic, 396 pp., $18.95. Ages 12 & up.
By Janice Harayda
Thirteen beauty queens stumble into literal and metaphorical quicksand after their plane crashes on a tropical island in this madcap feminist farce with AK-47s and eyelash curlers. With fish and coconuts to sustain them, the Miss Teen Dream contestants don’t waste time weeping for their dead chaperones, who might have enforced the morals-clauses in their contracts. They keep hoping for a rescue and practicing their dance steps for the pageant, led by the crown-obsessed Miss Texas, until they discover that their island holds secret agents with high-tech offices hidden in a volcano who may work for their corporate sponsor.
As they try to outwit the men with walkie-talkies, the contestants have time to explore their varied sexual identities – straight, gay, transgender or uncertain – with the frankness of Miss Illinois, who dislikes having to declare an orientation like a major: “I am straight with a minor in gay.” Their tale sags in its last third under the weight and predictability of the wrap-ups of all the subplots — each involving a character who sees that she must be true herself, no matter what her unenlightened parents or friends think — and a deus ex machina in the form of a ship full of TV-show pirates.
But Libba Bray satirizes worthy targets along the way, including corporate greed, identity politics, and sexual double standards. And the contestants’ stories coalesce into a tidy theme expressed by Miss Nebraska. “Maybe girls’ need an island to find themselves,” she says. “Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching so they can be who they really are.”
Best line: “My platform is Identifying Misogyny in American Culture.” From the “Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts Page” about Adina Greenberg, Miss New Hampshire, a high school journalist who entered the contest hoping to expose how it promotes “the objectification of women.”
Worst line: “Taylor had heard enough. She emerged from the jungle like a Kurtzian goddess.” In these lines, Bray is writing from the point of view of Taylor Hawkins, Miss Texas, a pageant obsessive who shows little evidence of having read anything but I’m Perfect and You Can Be, Too, a self-help manual by a Miss Teen Dream winner who resembles a Southern-fried Sara Palin. It’s hard to believe she would see herself in terms of a character in Heart of Darkness.
Published: May 2011
Furthermore: Beauty Queens is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the young-adult literature category. Some critics have called Beauty Queens a “satire,” and it does satirize contemporary follies, but its intentionally over-the-top aspects give it more in common with farce. The novel is the fifth by bestselling author Libba Bray, who lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews recently was ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet. It was named one of the top blogs in New Jersey by New Jersey Monthly.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.