A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

a great and terrible beautyReading level: 5.9
Lexile: 760
Series: Gemma Doyle, #1
Genre: Historical fiction, paranormal
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother’s death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls’ academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order. The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions “for a bit of fun” and to taste the power they will never have as Victorian wives, but they discover that the delights of the realms are overwhelmed by a menace they cannot control. Gemma is left with the knowledge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mission to seek out the “others” and rebuild the Order.

Mmmm. Libba Bray. Mmmm. That book cover. She is just so good.

Much like Beauty Queens, A Great and Terrible Beauty is a reflection on how society treats and views women. This time, there’s a Victorian spin where we get a taste of how women were expected to live back in the day. But if you stop and think for…two seconds you’ll see how some of those expectations carry over to today. Oh, but Gemma and her friends try to swim against the current, which is very refreshing.

Victorian English stories are interesting. Victorian English stories with paranormal monsters and other worlds is fantastic. I felt that some of the plot moved on too slowly, but in retrospect it was just building a complex world with complex characters that will continue for two more books (hooray!). I liked how we are set up to dislike Pippa and her crew, but we grow to like them. Watching them all pull together and grow stronger from each other was empowering. I didn’t expect them to become so tight. Honestly, I still don’t trust any of them except Gemma and Anne, but I am open to changing my mind.

It’s not ELL friendly (this is Victorian England, remember) but not too complex for higher ELLs to understand. My fear was that it just wouldn’t be appropriate for various reasons. I’ll put a PG-14 sticker on it for a brief but vivid dreamed…romantic encounter, but other than that one instance, I see no issues with it.

I might start a book talk by telling students what life was like in Victorian times: women expected to do whatever their father/brother/husband said, cook and clean and not have a career, to not speak unless spoken to, to marry whomever their parents chose… Imagine how hard it would be to rebel or be happy at all under these conditions. Gemma finds a way to escape these constraints, briefly, by escaping into the Realms, a magical place where there is anything and everything you could wish for but which holds dark magic and great dangers. Would you still go there to escape no matter the risks?

Beauty Queens – Libba Bray

beauty queensReading level: 5.3

Genre: Chick lit, survival, satire

ELL-Friendly: Yes

Library recommendation: High school (because of mature content)

This was my first experience with Libba Bray and I was not disappointed. I listened to the audio book which was read by Ms. Bray herself which may have had something to do with how much I loved it due to the voices she had for the characters and her natural ability to narrate. The way she made the voices of certain characters helped me love them (or not, in some cases), and I wonder how different my experience with the book would have been had I read a paper copy. Regardless, an excellent read.

There’s so much in this book: feminism, sexism, beauty, love, body image, family, friends, corporations, media… In some ways the book is true to life but at the same time outlandish enough to be fun yet deep. I also particularly liked the ending, where not everything was perfect – because our society isn’t perfect, and really that’s what the book is reflecting upon.

Beauty Queens, I am sad to say, has no place on my middle school bookshelf. Here’s why: there’s some swearing (okay, a lot) as well as a handful of F-bombs and references and descriptions of sex.

But wait – the language and sexuality bits are powerful and very deliberately written. The problem is that the language and sex is still there. Nobody expects beauty queens to swear like this! And the sexuality bits are about girls coming to love themselves while being in control. But if high school parents are going to panic about one scene in John Green’s Looking for Alaska, parents will have heart attacks over Beauty Queens. I don’t even know if I’d be okay with it in a high school class. I fully believe high schoolers to be mature enough to understand and appreciate these components, but I’m wary of parents. Parents might also flip out over the homosexual romance as well, but that’s a fight I’m willing to have.

Basically, it’s a truly wonderful, reflective book that high schoolers should read. Whether or not I want to risk getting in trouble for having teenagers read it is another question. But outside of school, kids (and adults), go for it.