Monday, November 05, 2012

You Great Big Beautiful Doll: Prettiest Doll by Gina Willner Pardo

Dear Mama,

When you get this, I'll be gone. I'm with a friend, so don't worry. Not Imogene. Someone you don't know but you would like. I'll call you later when I can. Don't worry. I know you will anyway. But don't.

I am a terrible singer and I always will be. Lessons won't help.

I'm through with pageants for good.

Love, Liv

Liv Tatum knows she is pretty. She should. She’s been winning pageants since she was three years old. She knows that she’s lucky, that having everyone know she wins contests gives her a place in the beauty clique with the other pageant girls at school. But since she’s turned thirteen, she’s been having some strange thoughts–like feeling invisible inside the pageant gowns that her mom works so hard to buy, wondering who she is underneath the makeup tricks and behind the twirls and the smiles.

Liv finds herself wishing that she could be like her friend Imogene, who never has to worry about having poise or looking pretty, as long as she has her horse, Honey. Liv doesn’t want a horse, but lately she knows that she wants something else. She’s not sure what it is, but she knows it’s not having to rehearse that song, “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” with the grouchy, old-lady-smelling Miss Elsie Drucker. It’s not competing in The Prettiest Doll Pageant and dozens more stretching endlessly out ahead of her.

But Mama won’t listen. She’s been working two jobs for ten years just to keep buying gowns and paying for lessons to keep Olivia winning pageants, and with the Prettiest Doll competition coming up, she’s determined that Liv is going to win the big one this time. Suddenly Liv sees that it’s not really about her, not about having poise and winning trophies. Mama’s whole identity is in being a pageant mom, a bit of glamour in her dreary life in Luthers Bridge, Missouri, and Liv can’t see any way out of doing pageants forever.

“Mama,” I said, “if I didn’t do pageants, would you be proud of me?”

“Olivia Jane, I’m too tired to play this game.”

“It’s not a game. Okay, now, what would you be proud of me for?

She just sat for a minute, Finally she said, “I don’t know.

You’ve been doing pageants for a long time,” Mama said. “I got used to being proud of you for that. I ain’t gonna apologize.”

Then Liv meets Danny, a boy who is a running away from something. His mother wants him to take human growth hormone shots to make him taller, and he’s not sure he wants to let her. He wants to get to Chicago, somehow believing that the father he hasn’t seen in a decade is going to know what he should do. And Liv decides to go with him, also believing that finding her dead dad’s brother, her beloved Uncle Fred, will somehow give her the strength to tell her mother that she’s done with pageants.

Appearance and reality is the theme of Gina Willner-Pardo’s latest, Prettiest Doll (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2012), dealing with that time in the maturation process in which young adults must learn to see themselves as they are and can be, not merely as their parents and others see them. While Danny’s father rejects him outright, being on her own, away from Luther’s Bridge, helps Liv see herself in a new way, as a person who can make her own choices. With Uncle Fred’s gentle counsel, she knows she can go home again but as someone who is more than just “a great big, beautiful doll.”

Willner-Pardo knows how to create realistic characters, both the young and the adults in their lives, in real-world situations with easy humor and insight. Middle readers will find her most recent novel as absorbing as her earlier notable books, including The Hard Kind of Promise and My Mom and Other Mysteries of the Universe.

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