Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Like Vanessa

28234830Charles, Tami. Like Vanessa.
March 13th 2018 by Charlesbridge
Copy provided by the publisher

Vanessa Martin's life is very different from that of Vanessa Williams. After seeing Williams crowned as the first black Miss America in 1984, Vanessa sees this as a source of hope in her own life. She lives in a struggling neighborhood with her uncommunicative father and her sometimes inebriated  grandfather, since her mother is not in the picture. Vanessa tries to make sense of her world by writing in a diary she has named Darlene, and tries to imagine a better life for herself, but isn't quite sure where to start. When a teacher at school, Mrs. Walton, approaches Vanessa to enter a beauty pageant, she is very surprised. She is heavy, doesn't dress well, and is very dark skinned, and none of those things say "beauty queen" in Vanessa's world. Even her friend Tanisha, who is more interested in basketball lately, is a bit surprised. Vanessa is an excellent singer and a good student, and Mrs. Walton assures her that those are the two most crucial aspects of the pageant; the rest can be worked on. With the help of her cousin TJ, she learns to walk in heels, takes better care of her skin and hair, and starts to dress a bit more fashionably. She has a rocky relationship with Beatriz, another pageant contestant, and finds out more information about the elusive mother whom she misses. The pageant itself is not easy, but with some surprising reveals from Mrs. Walton, Vanessa learns to trust that her own abilities and motivation are enough to make a better life for herself.
Strengths: This book works for middle school or high school, which I really appreciate. Students today don't realize how very different things were in the 1980s, and there really isn't a whole lot of historical fiction covering this period. Although there are plenty of books written during that time, few cover the black experience. The inclusion and treatment of topics such as TJ's sexuality, perception of appearance, importance of church, and child abuse make this book a layered tour de force of Important Topics delivered with a sparkly layer of lip gloss! That's a good combination, especially for middle school students who may not be as accustomed to reading about social issues.
Weaknesses: The font on the cover could have so easily been a cool 1980s one. There are SO many. There could have been a few more 1980s details. I was personally uncomfortable with how much Vanessa's success was tied to her appearance, but that is absolutely true of the time period. It may take some explaining to today's students, who regularly come to school in the same athletic gear they wore to bed!
What I really think: This is a must purchase for middle schools and high schools, and will find a wide variety of readers. As for the importance of appearances-- perhaps we need a little more of that in the world today, if only so students would wear jeans instead of leggings or track pants to school! I was always able to go right from school, in my skirts or dresses, to work in the So-Fro Fabrics in the mall! (Below: I actually made the ensemble on the left in a turquoise cotton with a cream eyelet pinafore. And I wore it to school. And no one laughed. Different times. Image from Etsy. Probably a Simplicity pattern.)

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