A librarian friend of mine suggested I pick up a copy of this book, and the author, Gina Willner-Pardo, very kindly signed and sent me a copy. This is one of those books that I probably would have passed over if I had simply been browsing Chapters for my Next Great Read, so I was glad that it was recommended to me.
Prettiest Doll is a sweet story about a 13-year-old girl, trapped in the clutches of the beauty-pageant world by her mama, whose resentment over her glitzy cage manifests itself into running away. Olivia desperately wants to live a life that doesn’t include stiff dresses, stiff hair, and stiff smiles—no matter how many people tell her she’s beautiful. So when a stranger comes to her small corner of Missouri, in the form of 15-year-old Danny, who’s also dealing with the trappings of his own cage, Olivia finds her ticket out of town.
There are a few things that I really enjoyed about this book that you might like as well. First, I like that Olivia is not whiny. It would’ve been very easy to write a character who complains about anything and everything under the sun, especially since Olivia does have something to complain about. But I very much appreciated that despite her complaints, she doesn’t seem bratty or annoying. She has genuine concerns about how her participation in pageants might affect the rest of her life.
Second, I liked having a bit of a backstage pass to view the life of a beauty queen between contests. I wonder if Willner-Pardo ever participated in any pageants herself of if she knows someone who does. I think, Squinks, what you’ll like is the fact that she tackles the "uncommon" situation of someone who’s good at something but who doesn’t actually want to participate in it. We never think of that happening. I mean, usually, if you’re good at gym, for example, teachers assume that you actually enjoy gym class. I liked the fleshing out of Olivia’s character by giving her so many layers. She wants to please her mom, knowing she easily could, but she doesn’t enjoy it and, instead, dares to think differently and deeply about her future.
The third thing I really enjoyed was the dynamic between Olivia and Danny. Willner-Pardo nicely juxtaposes Olivia’s obstacles with Danny’s dilemmas to showcase the fact that despite being relatively similar in age, kids can have radically distinct—though somewhat related—problems. And in talking about their lives and sharing their fears and hopes, these two people who might never have known each other if not for their chance encounter over milkshake, begin a friendship that I’m sure they will cherish for the rest of their lives. I know it’s hard to think about making friends and leaving them, and although Willner-Pardo doesn’t indicate that Olivia and Danny will never meet again, in creating the character of Danny, the author highlights the existence of a rare and beautiful gift that sometimes we take for granted (or not even realize we have): Danny is one of those souls that walks into our lives, if but for a fleeting moment, but that nonetheless changes us forever. I liked that Olivia and Danny discover more of themselves by getting to know one another.
Squinks, this is a nice story of friendship and growing up that you might like. I did find some parts of it moving a little slowly—there was a moment when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pick it up again after I was interrupted, but I was glad I did. The ending is sweet and thought-provoking. And parents, this is a great story to lead into discussions of physical appearances, expectations, and the true meaning of beauty—not to mention running away from home. That being said, the irony isn’t lost on me about how I totally judged this book by its cover when I first saw it, which is the issue Olivia and Danny grapple with throughout the story. But just as with other things, there’s so much more than meets the eye in this book.