It all started innocently enough. I was at the public library searching for an audio book. As I was flipping through my choices I stumbled across the most beautiful cover. I thought I remembered reading a positive review for A Great and Terrible Beauty, but my decision to check it out was really about the cover art. I was entranced by the great and terrible beauty of it. Maybe because it reminded me of Horst P Horst's Mainbocher Corset photo? Anyway, the story did not disappoint. Libba Bray wove a captivating tale and Josephine Bailey brought the characters at Spence Academy to life. I loved Gemma Doyle's frank talk and tendency to be outspoken (probably because my friends would say we share these traits). I also loved how Bray wove a supernatural tale full of rich details while simultaneously paying close attention to the development of complex and realistic relationships between the girls. It's part fantasy, part mystery and part realistic fiction. For me, a perfect blend.
In the end I loved Bailey's narration so much I actually made the conscious decision to listen to her read the next two books as well. Finishing the series was one of those bittersweet reading moments. The last tape finished and I was struck by melancholy. I missed the characters like old friends, but I was already looking forward to Bray's next tale.
Okay, so if you had asked me to predict what Bray's next novel would be about I can almost guarantee it would not have included Mad Cow disease, fairies or garden gnomes. And yet these ingredients made for one of the most memorable stories I've ever read. Going Bovine centers around, Cameron, an unlucky teen who contracts Mad Cow disease. The narration of Cameron's descent into madness is a literary world away from the Spence Academy that I loved so much. In the beginning, I wasn't really a fan of Cam. I didn't find him likable or sympathetic. But as the story developed I started rooting for him and hoping that somehow the fantasy would resolve without the end that I was dreading. I worried that Bray would not confront his death in a way that I would find believable or acceptable. I mean, no one knows what happens when you die so getting me to believe an account of the death of a character I'd grown attached to was a huge test for me as a reader. Did she get it right? Absolutely. I can certainly understand why Going Bovine was the 2010 Printz winner.
And then there is Beauty Queens. This was the title that moved Libba Bray from an author I love to my favorite YA author. I listened to the audio book which is narrated by Bray. Now I've listened to other stars and authors do narrations before and I've been disappointed (sorry Mr. Pitt), but not this time. I was quite literally laughing out loud, repeatedly, as I drove down the road. I cannot remember having so much fun listening to someone read a story to me. One of my favorite voices was the Marilyn Monroe inspired, breathy voice of Tiara. It wasn't long before I was looking forward to the start of each chapter so I could laugh at whatever ridiculous assocation Tiara made to the next number (Seven. That's how many calories I have for breakfast!). I also thought the commercial breaks and footnotes were a fresh and funny addition to the story. But seriously, Bray manages to address nearly every woman's issue in this book without being didactic. She creates charming characters who handle absurd situations with strength and ingenuity. Each beauty queen manages to be more than just a pretty face, but there's still enough sparkle ponies and twirls to bring a smile to every girl or guy who has watched a Miss (fill in the blank) pageant. I would not be surprised to see Beauty Queens a the top of the Printz list this year making Libba Bray a virtual YA Literature Queen.
I can hardly wait for whatever comes next.