As a reader of YA fantasy novels, Dhonielle Clayton has nothing but love for the plucky thief.

“Everybody loves the plucky thief,” says Clayton, co-author of the Tiny Pretty Things series and co-founder and COO of We Need Diverse Books. “You feel bad for her because she’s poor, but she steals. She can take care of herself.”

As an author, “I wanted to show the opposite,” she says. “I wanted to tell a story about a girl like me.”

In Clayton’s hotly anticipated solo YA fantasy debut, The Belles, Camellia “Camille” Beauregard is a Belle, one of an elite class of young women practicing an ancient and mysterious art that temporarily changes the physical appearances of others.

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In the Kingdom of Orléans, where most citizens are born with gray skin, strawlike hair, and red eyes, the Belles’ pricey services are passionately sought. Especially ambitious and intelligent, but naïve, Camille dreams of being named royal favorite of six sisters making their formal debut.

“I want to be the one who makes them all beautiful,” Clayton writes. “I want to be the one the queen chooses. I want the power that comes with being Her Majesty’s favorite. And if I can be better than Amber, I will be chosen. The rest of my sisters are good, but deep in my heart, I know it will come down to her and me.”

Camille is the boundary-pusher; Amber follows instructions to a T. Whoever is chosen favorite will serve the royal family and set trends in a kingdom where “beauty is variety.” In Orléans, no skin color, hair texture, eye color, or body type is privileged above another—it’s simply what’s à la modebut beauty is still power.

“On the surface this is a story about a girl in a messed-up world trying to figure things out,” Clayton says, “but I really wanted to open up a conversation with people—girls in particular—about the commodification of bodies and beauty. It’s uncomfortable, it’s dark, and that’s why I felt I had to layer it in decadence.... It sucks you in, in the way beautiful pastries and tarts can, and then you go to eat one and then it’s like something...doesn’t...taste...right.”

Clayton writes: “Even though I’ve been dressed and measured and primped so many times, I still hate the feeling in these moments that my body doesn’t belong to me. I become a doll—an object to be embellished. I wonder if this is how women feel on our treatment tables.”

Clayton cover Such insights but skim the icing on this delectably complex confection—a bravura of worldbuilding from the co-founder of CAKE Literary, a creative development company focusing on diversity in middle grade, YA, and adult fiction. As Kirkus writes in The Belles’ starred review, “With a refreshingly original concept, this substantial fantasy, the first in a duology, is an undeniable page-turner.”

“This book is not just for girls, even though it is trapped in femininity,” Clayton says. “It is for everyone, and I hope librarians and teachers challenge their boys to read it and don’t segregate it as a book about girls, for girls.

“I’ve done presentations for boys and girls with this book,” she says, “and they have just as much to say about bodies, just as much to say about what the ideal man is supposed to be and what the ideal man is supposed to have as a wife or girlfriend or partner—in all communities. We need to talk about what we do in service of these ideals, which are tinged with both male and female approval.”

Megan Labrise is a staff writer.