When 13-year-old Sophie LeClerq puts together a look, people notice: she’s the prettiest girl in her Park Slope class. Her African-American mother is a fashion journalist, her French father sends designer clothes, and she incorporates their influences into an eclectic style that shines. 

In Chapter 1 of Justin Sayre’s middle-grade novel Pretty, Sophie rocks an Old Navy V-neck with a skirt from Milan, low tops with low socks, and a green rock necklace with white-lace Madonna gloves.

“I know this seems like a lot for just a Tuesday in the eighth grade,” Sayre writes in Pretty as Sophie.“But I like it, and I need it. I need a little something extra. I always have. I look at this outfit and I see the extra. My extra. Someone else could wear the same shirt and the same skirt, but when I wear the outfit, I bring the extra.”

Sayre knows how to bring the extra. He’s been described by Michael Musto of the Village Voice as “Oscar Wilde meets Whoopi Goldberg.” He is a bicoastal cabaret performer, gay rights activist, and television writer (2 Broke Girls) who appeared in Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback. 

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He also wrote the critically acclaimed middle-grade novel Husky, the story of questioning preteen opera buff Davis, aka Ducks, one of Sophie’s besties. Shifting to Sophie’s perspective, Pretty is the second book in an adjectival series about their friend group. (A third novel, Mean, will be told from the point of view of their friend Ellen.)

With Pretty, Sayre says, “I did want to explore the idea of what being labeled ‘pretty’ felt like—how one is objectified, how one is put upon—because there is a perception of power immediately. But there were thoughts very early on in Husky that there was something else going on with Sophie.”

The “extra” going on with Sophie is something not even Ducks knows: her mother, Janet, is an alcoholic. Evenings, Sophie counts drinks and shirks conflicts. Mornings, she checks on her mother to make sure she’s still breathing. With all this, she must balance a typical teen’s obligations: homework, friendships, first love.

Sayre_Cover“The minute I walk in the door, everything revolves around Janet, whether she realizes it or not,” he writes. “Even if I’m doing my homework or watching TV or texting with Allegra or Ellen or whoever alone in my room, I’m never not watching her.”

When Janet gets a weekslong assignment in Paris and her sister, Aunt Amara, comes to stay, Sophie doesn’t see it as a reprieve; she’s resentful. But, as they build trust, she begins to explore her black heritage, her family tree, new places and emotions.

“I didn’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, this woman, Aunt Amara, comes in and saves the day,’ ” Sayre says. “Sophie does a lot of the work to let [evolution] happen, and that’s a big theme in all the books: these kids have to figure out something for themselves rather than have lessons be put upon them.”

In light of her lessons, Sophie re-evaluates what it means to be “pretty” and how it differs from being truly beautiful.

“Beautiful is how something is made,” Sayre writes. “Beautiful is how things work together, like a piece of music or a poem. Beautiful is how you take all the things that you are, all the stuff that makes you up, and put it to good use in the world....Pretty is fine, but that’s like anything, anything can be pretty when you put it in the right light, but to be beautiful is to have a purpose.”

Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked