Review: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty Queens
Libba Bray

Scholastic Press
400 pages
YA / Adventure

Purchase it from Amazon here

I knew I was going to like this book when I saw the footnotes.  Fiction books with footnotes tend to be snarky with a third party narrator making commentary on the story at hand.  This was no different.  So when the “A Word from Your Sponsor” section had a footnote on page 3 that said:

“You look worried.  Really, you should relax.  Reading is a pleasurable activity and worrying is bad for your heart.”

I was giggling like a fool and excited to see where Ms. Bray was about to take me.  What followed was one of the funniest books I’ve read in a while that didn’t venture into the ridiculous (well, not much) yet had a really poignant message I probably needed when I was a teenager.  The themes of self-discovery and “rampant consumerism is ruining society” verged on the heavy handed at times, but overall Beauty Queens is an endearing novel about survival and learning that perhaps the world isn’t a completely bleak place.  At least until a corporation attempts to murder you for crash landing on their top secret weapon island, but that comes later.

The premise is simple: 50 beauty queens are on their way to a tropical resort for the Miss Teen Dream pageant when the engine on their plane explodes and they crash land on what they believe to be a deserted island.  Only a dozen or so of the girls survive and find themselves in shock as tends to happen when you’ve just survived a plane crash (I know this because I watched Lost).  The survivors cover any imaginable stereotype you would think might be associated with a beauty pageant: the overbearing type-A queen bee who lives and breathes the pageant, the sassy ethnic girl, the tomboy trying to win her mother’s approval, the incredibly blonde and stupid Southern girls who just know how to be pretty, the deaf girl, the delinquent trying to reform through pageantry, the undercover journalist trying to take the pageant down, the transgendered former boy band heartthrob, the pretty girl with a tray table permanently stuck in her head… you know, the usual. 

As you’d expect, they have to come together to survive.  As they do, they realize they’re more than just pretty faces; they’re strong independent women, goddamn it!  They have brains and talents and can take care of themselves!  This really shouldn’t be a spoiler.  It’s pretty obvious where things are going, at least in terms of the main characters’ emotional story arch into become three dimensional people and not just the previously mentioned stereotypes.  Then the hot British pirates show up, a stupid trust fund baby keeps using the word “misunderestimate” and one of the girls becomes the most awesome schizophrenic ninja that has ever existed, and you no longer know where the hell you’re going.

Meanwhile there’s a secret arms deal going on, a very Sarah Palin-esque former Miss Teen Dream is trying to pretty her way into the presidency, and a sociopathic foreign tyrant whose primary advisor is a stuffed lemur is pretending he’s Elvis.  Oh yes, Elvis.  With the spangly jumpsuits, blue suede shoes, black pompadour wig and everything.  Can you see why I loved this book?  It sounds absolutely ridiculous and yet Libba Bray makes it work.  It all makes sense: the catty footnotes, the “alternate scenes”, the “commercial breaks”, the vague shout outs to cultural milestones, the characters who are just mildly altered versions of real people, the crazy reality television shows, everything.  Somehow Bray takes a bucket full of random and turns it into a fast-paced rollercoaster ride of joyful AWESOMENESS!

Bray’s writing style is cinematic at times to the point of often making fun of cliché scenes in teen movies (i.e. the epilogue).  Each character has her own voice, a fully formed one that the author uses to discuss sexuality, feminism, the negative effects of culture at large, social connections, the education system, superficiality… the list goes on and on.  With all the causes she was working in, the story could have gotten bogged down in politics and activism, and yet Bray, for the most part, managed to balance her touting of positive messages teen girls should probably hear much more often by hiding it in humor and action.

There were a few things I didn’t quite get.  One of the girls has a strong yet suppressed sex drive that eventually gets unleashed, but in her back story, she often refers to it as a curse and describes it in a way that makes it sound like she physically changes, like in a werewolf sort of way, as though it isn’t a common teenage girl thing, but something specifically special to her.  I know it’s all a giant metaphor about how society attempts to suppress the sexual urges of women, but the manner in which it’s initially explained didn’t quite hit me in the right way and I found myself wondering if a supernatural element was sneaking its way in.  I mean, we had just about everything else.

I also didn’t really get the motivation behind most of what Agent Jones, the head of the secret base on the other side of the island, did.  He seemed to flip flop between badass secret agent man with a conscience and corporate lackey who did whatever he was told.  Sometimes his actions didn’t make much sense, though to go further into that, it would involve spoilers.

Overall, though, I really loved this book.  It was fun, it was entertaining, it made me laugh hysterically and cause my boyfriend to look at me funny.  Multiple times.  It made fun of all the things I make fun of – bad reality television shows with exploitative plots, sexualized commercials for men’s body wash, bad chick flicks where the main character can only be happy with a man, ridiculous advertisements for women’s product that will make your life a trillion times better, the media in general and basically the stupidity of the entire consumer culture.  The characters were fully formed and easy to root for even though the bad guys were pretty incompetent.  And in the end, you wanted everyone to have a happily ever after. 

I honestly think I could go on and on about this book.  It made me genuinely happy reading it and I never wanted to put it down, which hasn’t happened in months.  I highly suggest this one and I will leave you with a quote that, to me, sums up the book perfectly:

“Here’s the plan: Pack whatever you’ve got.  We are going to march into that jungle to find Mary Lou, and then we are going to bring Taylor back, and then we are going to build our own freaking ship or rocket or Sparkle Pony from Hell and get the hell off this island!” (pg. 289)



Hysterical fast-paced read with fun, engaging characters you can root for; bizarre asides, occasional commercial breaks and the best use of WTF I’ve seen in YA lit