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"A plane full of beauty queens crashes on a deserted island. And…go!"
According to the Acknowledgments, Beauty Queens supposedly began when Libba Bray's editor, David Levithan (also a well-known author) gave her that very challenge.
Challenge accepted, sir. Bray took the concept and ran with it. Very, very far.
But why did she run in this particular direction? Why build commercial scripts, footnotes, and an evil corporation into the story? Why does she make the pageant contestants work together, instead of choosing to have them tear each other apart?
Spoiler alert: to serve up a serious dose of critique to a problem in society. But don't hit snooze the second you see the word "critique": she does it with enough pop culture savvy and satire to keep us hooked.
Don't believe us? Let her say it herself. In a College Candy interview on the book, Bray explains it like this:
"One day I was at the 7-11, where all my great ideas come, I was waiting for the icey machine and I saw the tabloid stories. I saw that every single cover had something like 'Is so-and-so dating so-and-so?' or 'Angelina's beauty secrets and perfect body two weeks after baby!' There wasn't one with 'Beyoncé is at the top of the Forbes list and makes awesome new record'. It was all that reductive stuff. And I thought, why is this going on now? What is happening at this moment in time that is so limiting for women? So I wanted to explore that. And I wanted to explore what it is to grow up female in this society."
A critique that involves ICEEs and Beyoncé? We're sold.
Basically, the premise David Levithan gave her was perfect for exploring this subject. Beauty pageant contestants are judged almost solely on their looks (but, you know, technically there are other categories, too). So girls participating in them would probably be the most sensitive to the media's messages about beauty.
This book was published in 2011, right on the heels of Going Bovine, Bray's Don Quixote-esque mad cow disease book that won the Printz Award, the highest award for young adult novels. Bray was initially known for her historical fantasy Gemma Doyle trilogy.
Fantastical nineteenth-century boarding school, mad cow disease, then beauty pageants. That's some range.
Fourteen teenage beauty pageant contestants. An evil corporation inside a volcano. A sinister Texas businesswoman named Ladybird. Sexy British faux pirates. An Elvis-obsessed dictator with a stuffed lemur for an advisor. Commercials for fake products with names like Lady 'Stache Off, the Git R Done handgun, and shows like Vampire Prom.
Need we say more? Don't get us wrong—we will say more, but need we?
Like any satire, Beauty Queens is packed with social commentary. Name any stereotype about beauty pageant girls—this book has it. In the beginning, that is. Bray's narration takes these girls—who look like nothing but a pack of clichés on the surface—and explains each of their backstories until we care enough to watch them change. It asks the question: what do beauty queens do when their skills become irrelevant, when they're no longer performing and suddenly have to survive? And it uses that premise to ask many bigger questions.
But as will all great satire, the book asks big questions through exaggeration, sometimes to the point of sheer absurdity. Beauty Queens doesn't preach. It is funny, witty, and weird.
It also sheds light on the weirdness we see and hear in our media everyday. On live TV, the politician character, Ladybird Hope, says, "Our country needs something to believe in, Barry. They need us to be the shining beacon on the hill….And let me tell you something, Barry, that shining beacon will have a talent portion and pretty girls, because if we don't come out and twirl those batons and model our evening gowns and answer questions about geography, then the terrorists have won." (6.193)
Crazy, right? But also, um, not that different from what we sometimes hear from real politicians.
Come for the funny, stay for the lines that make you think. You've never read social commentary like this.
Miss Beauty Queens
The official site of the book's author, Libba Bray.
You can read the author's blog, which, like her book, is sometimes poignant and often hilarious.
Making it Official
There she is, the Miss America website…
Complete with Fun Facts!
Here's the official site for Miss Teen USA, which is probably the closest pageant to the fictional Miss Teen Dream. Check out the photos of all the contestants to get a sense of what Bray's characters might look like.
The Guardian review of Beauty Queens is basically a heap of praise.
Author Libba Bray is interviewed, and in her own hilarious words, describes how she came up with and executed this zany masterpiece.
Defending the Beauty Pageant
Not only does this article list defenses of beauty pageants; it also features amazing photos from American beauty pageants throughout the years. Hard to say no to a good snap.
Teen Dreams IRL
If you're wondering what a real teen beauty pageant looks like, you can watch the full 2015 Miss Teen USA pageant—from strutting to the crown.
Like Such As And
Remember Tiara's practice interview answer in Chapter Six? See how similar it is to the way Miss South Carolina answered in 2007.
Another pageant fail. Bumbling host Steve Harvey gives the Miss Universe crown to the wrong beauty queen.
This is really a thing
Remember how Tiara said she did her first pageant when she was two weeks old? Watch this depiction of an actual baby beauty pageant from Toddlers and Tiaras. (Yes, it's a little creepy.)
John Oliver Does Pageants
Nicole was running for Miss Teen Dream so she could get a scholarship. But what does it mean that this type of organization provides scholarships? John Oliver looks into this, plus gets in a few zingers about Donald Trump along the way.
Libba Podcasts on Writing
The best way to get to know the author is by listening to this interview with her, complete with a killer introduction.
Bray Gets Name-dropped
Here's all the NPR coverage of Libba's books in one convenient thread.
Clever, or Missing the Point?
What do you think of this provocative cover of the Beauty Queens book?
These photos show how the normal-looking girls in child beauty pageants are transformed into doll-like versions of themselves. (Even creepier.)
Grainy, but Telling
Check out this old photo of the first Miss America pageant in 1921, and notice all the ways our standards of beauty have changed. Also, are they wearing dresses, or just really old-timey swimsuits?