The cover art on Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens (Scholastic, 2011) is my favorite of the year. I realize that it’s rather early on to make that statement. Normally, I’d temper it with a “so far,” but in this case, my love is so very passionate that I can’t imagine my feelings will change. Designer Elizabeth B. Parisi*—also executive art director at Scholastic—should get an award for the pure awesomesauce of the lipstick bandolier alone!

I had a more mixed reaction to the book itself.

But let’s back up.

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Beauty Queens, in a nutshell: Lord of the Flies meets Miss America with a splash of James Bond action**.

Beauty Queens, in a larger nutshell: A plane crash leaves a small number of surviving teen beauty pageant contestants stranded on an unnamed, unknown desert island. While they’re on the island trying to survive dangers both expected (hunger, thirst, quicksand) and unexpected (a secret military base, pirates), their unplanned sabbatical from the outside world forces them to confront big questions: Who They Are, Who They Want To Be and What They Want in Life. They explore issues of race and image; sexuality and gender; truth, beauty and control.

Almost every one of the girls is wrestling with an identity-related question, and there are truly poignant, thoughtful passages in which they privately mull those questions over. In public, each girl has her moments of utter cluelessness (whether social or intellectual) and her moments of satisfyingly proud—and often hilarious—ingenuity.

For instance, Miss Ohio comes up with a solar hibachi:

“This is so cool. How did you come up with this?” Adina asked.
“Hello!” Miss Ohio rolled her eyes. “I’m from the Buckeye State. We are serious about our tailgating parties. I can turn anything into a grill.”

That’s a lot of girls, a lot of questions and a lot of issues. So, although they come off as real people in their private moments, and although there was a clear effort to portray each one as an individual, most of them come off as caricatures in the group scenes. Part of the reason for that, of course, can be attributed to satire as a genre: It’s always hard to develop emotional ties with characters who act, in part, to provide commentary on larger cultural issues.

And comment it does! Yes, in addition to all of the self-discovery, Beauty Queens also serves as a satirical send-up of the media in general and reality television in specific; of modeling, pageants and fashion; and of consumerism, the beauty industry and politics. Add to that the mapcap plotting—which is, quite often, laugh-out-loud funny—and the rapid swings from quiet(ish) introspection to almost maniacal action can be dizzying. Enjoyably, hilariously dizzying, but dizzying nonetheless.

Satire is a hard genre to pull off, and satire in long form is even more difficult, as it requires heart in addition to humor. Beauty Queens has heart. And it has humor. But they never fully integrate, so while the parts work well on their own, the book never comes together smoothly as a whole.

Although I fell somewhere in the middle, for most readers, Beauty Queens will be a love-it-or-hate-it title. Which is a quality that always makes for a great book group pick. It’s the kind of book that you’ll want to discuss after reading. I serve as proof of that, as I’d love to hear what you think: Love it? Hate it? In no man’s land with me? Let me know!

If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably engaged in yet-another pitched battle with her new cat.


*This cover is not a fluke: She also designed the covers for Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied (Scholastic, 2008) and Strings Attached (Scholastic, 2011), as well as the covers for The Hunger Games (Scholastic 2008-2010) trilogy.

**Yes, there is a piranha tank!