Beauty pageants are a cultural practice that I don’t have any personal experience with, so I’m always fascinated when they pop up in YA fiction. They offer such an interesting framework for storytelling, and I love a good underdog tale, which is a category that most YA books about beauty pageants tend to fall into. These picks are especially great because they feature racial and body diversity in in settings that tend to prize white and thin bodies, showing readers that there is more than one way to be beautiful and confident in yourself. Here we go!
Dumplin‘ by Julie Murphy
Willowdean, AKA Dumplin’ to her beauty queen mom, is confident in herself and her fat body. She’s never seen anything wrong with her size, and she takes her inspiration from one of her idols, Dolly Parton. But when she meets a boy at her fast food job, his interest in her causes her self-confidence to flicker. And in the midst of her doubt and uncertainty, she finds herself signing up for the Miss Clover City pageant, the contest her mom helps run and won years ago. What she doesn’t count on is inspiring other unlikely candidates to join her!
Miss Meteor by Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore
Former best friends Lita Perez and Chicky Quintanilla have grown up watching the Miss Meteor pageant in their small town, knowing that girls who look like them never win. But not this year. Lita wants to enter, and she is going to need Chicky’s help in order to even have a chance of pulling it off. But if their plan works, Lita won’t only win — she’ll get to show the world who she is, and what girls who look like her can do.
What I Like About Me by Jenna Guillaume
Set in Australia, this YA novel is about Maisie, whose annual holiday is not going as planned. When her dad bails on the family trip, she is allowed to bring her friend Anna along instead. But Maisie is hurt when Anna starts flirting the boy Maisie’s vacationed with and crushed on for ages. Then a new friendship and some strange twists of fate have Maisie signing up for a beauty pageant and gaining new confidence in her plus-size body, and in her own relationships.
Like Vanessa by Tami Charles
This novel is technically middle grade, but it will definitely appeal to YA readers. It’s about 13-year-old Vanessa Martin living in 1983 New Jersey, who looks up to Vanessa Williams, the first Black Miss America. When Vanessa’s new teacher organizes a beauty pageant and encourages Vanessa to enter, Vanessa finds herself growing on confidence as she prepares for the talent and interview portions of the contest, and she discovers her own value and beauty.
Bonus: If you enjoy these books, check out the movie Miss Juneteenth, which isn’t based on a book but is about a single mom and former beauty queen who enters her daughter in the local Miss Juneteenth pageant, which offers scholarships to winners. But things don’t go exactly as planned as her teenage daughter isn’t exactly excited about the competition and wants to pursue her own passions.
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