Like Vanessa by Tami Charles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved this book! I think this is a must-order for any public or middle-school library! Besides being a much-needed book with diverse characters and cultural authenticity, it is a wonderfully rich and multi-faceted story with a positive message about beauty and strength that will have readers reexamining their definitions of beauty and hopefully inspiring them to recognize their own natural beauty. It is due to be released on March 13, 2018; be sure to look for it!
Set in the Newark projects in 1983, 13-year old Vanessa Martin, long-time Miss America pageant fan, is thrilled and inspired to see Vanessa Williams crowned as the first black Miss America (along with Miss New Jersey Suzette Charles, who was also black, as 1st runner-up). Vanessa dreams of one day being on the Miss America stage herself, though she wishes she fit the conventional standards of what is considered beautiful: long, wavy hair; light complexion, slender but curvy body. She sees her hair as too tightly coiled, her skin too dark, and her body too big and shapeless. But, an incredible voice, a school pageant, and a teacher who sees something special in her may come together to give her just the opportunity she needs to pursue her dream, IF she can find the confidence and courage.
While the central theme of this story may be facing fears and reexamining beauty, it includes several other issues that are all inter-related and part of the lives of Vanessa and her family, skillfully woven into the story and adding to it, rather than detracting from it as often happens when authors take on too much. We see the challenges of poverty, threats of gang violence, touching family relationships as well as difficult ones, how families are destroyed by drugs, and the lack of tolerance for those who were different. We also see typical middle school challenges of fitting in, being comfortable in your own skin, changing friendships, and learning how to recognize true friends.
This story has excellent character development, and I immediately fell in love with the characters of Vanessa, Pop Pop, and TJ. While Vanessa's father was a bit of an enigma and a somewhat unsympathetic character at first, I always had the feeling that his withdrawal from the family was the result of something painful and traumatic that had happened, that they were all keeping from Vanessa. I really loved the character of Vanessa's teacher, Mrs. Walton who turned out to be quite different from the well-intentioned but ill-prepared typical white teacher who wanted to "make a difference" but would quickly be overwhelmed and disappear before the end of the semester like so many others as Vanessa first assumed. Some have criticized this character as a "white savior", but I disagree and feel they completely mised the point. She was the child of immigrants and grew up in poverty herself and has a multiracial family. I thought the point of her character was to show that everyone can be guilty of stereotyping people and making mistaken assumptions based on appearances, and it's something we should all be careful of.
This story deals with some serious issues, but in an age-appropriate way that is not too graphic, nor bleak or disturbing. The overall tone is inspiring, challenging, and hopeful, and the story moves along at the perfect pace; never dragging, but never rushed, either. The author includes some historical notes at the end about the Miss America pageant and Vanessa Williams, as well as about her own background growing up in Newark and competing in pageants herself, inspired like the character in the story by Vanessa Williams' success. I always like it when an author includes historical context and background information. I recommend this book for ages 10 through 15, and I think many readers would find the themes relatable; fans of Rita Williams-Garcia's Gaither Sisters Series are sure to enjoy this book as well. I highly recommend it, and would not be surprised to see it as a Coretta Scott King finalist next year, if it can get the attention of the right people.
An impressive debut; I'm eager to see Ms. Charles' upcoming picture book and next middle-grade/YA novel due out in the next year or two.
[I received this as a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. Due out in March 2018]
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