True confession: Libba Bray and I were friends in college, and she wasn't right then either. Fortunately, she's now figured out how to make a living at it.
Libba was probably the first-ever one-eyed drama major in the history of the UT Theater department. She also kept several spare prosthetics, which were known to turn up in drinks at parties. We'd hear a shriek, and friends would knowingly grin with appreciation that Lib had once again pulled the "eyeball in a highball" trick on the uninitiated.
Meanwhile, I enjoyed turning my cropped hair into various shades of 80s post-punk self-expression, including a lovely version of I Love Lucy red. This was the object of much curiosity among the frat-boy set at the University of Texas, a college and a state that fetishizes conformist standards of female beauty above all others.
So it's not surprising that Libba Bray's newest YA novel, Beauty Queens, turns her all-knowing eye upon popular culture and the ridiculous standards of female cosmetic enhancement. Beauty Queens is Happy, Texas meets Lost and Lord of the Flies, with a surreal poke at reality TV and political celebrity.
A plane full of Miss Teen Dream contestants crashes on a tropical island. The survivors quickly gather what few items they can salvage from the wreckage, which includes straightening irons, evening gowns, and a lifetime supply of Lady 'Stache Off that conveniently doubles as plastic explosive.
Although Miss Texas insists they keep up their routines and twirling skills, the other contestants quickly decide survival takes precedence. Before long, they are using control garments as slingshots. They are also finding ever more creative uses for Lady 'Stache Off, none of which involve removing hair but many of which involve blowing things up, especially humongous snakes and things with sequins.
All of this happens under the watchful eye of The Corporation, which has turned the Teen Dream plane crash survival game into a reality show to up pageant ratings. The Corporation's CEO is former pageant queen Ladybird Hope, who bears an uncanny resemblance to America's favorite flute-playing half-term governor.
As their time on the island gets longer and their distance from society's constraints gets broader, the contestants discover talents they didn't know they had. Miss Texas discovers her inner Ninja warrior, Miss California Shanti Singh discovers she can make stiletto catapults as well as poppadums as her mother and grandmother taught her, Miss Ohio creates a solar hibachi (those Buckeye tailgates come in handy), and Miss Rhode Island, Petra West, reveals a whole new side of herself.
Do the girls get off the island? Do they take revenge on the Corporation for setting them up? And what happens to the IT'S MISS TEEN DREAM BITCHES banner they create for the next pageant?
Woven among the laugh-out-loud goofiness are Bray's sharp points about inner struggles, external validation, and the unhealthy behaviors and expectations forced upon young women. Technically this is a YA novel, but the awkward teenager in all of us can enjoy it. Buy it for yourself, and then give it away to your favorite teenager struggling to figure out who she is -- and tell her she's fabulous. You'll both be happy you did.