Spring 2018 Kids’ Indie Next List
— Kim Bissell, Broadway Books, Portland, OR
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In this semi-autobiographical debut novel set in 1983, Vanessa Martin's real-life reality of living with family in public housing in Newark, New Jersey is a far cry from the glamorous Miss America stage. She struggles with a mother she barely remembers, a grandfather dealing with addiction and her own battle with self-confidence. But when a new teacher at school coordinates a beauty pageant and convinces Vanessa to enter, Vanessa's view of her own world begins to change. Vanessa discovers that her own self-worth is more than the scores of her talent performance and her interview answers, and that she doesn't need a crown to be comfortable in her own skin and see her own true beauty.
"It's such an honor to be the focal point of this wonderful book! Without a doubt, it will be inspiring to a new generation of young, talented girls well on their way to promising careers." --Vanessa Williams, Multi-Platinum Recording Artist, New York Times Best-Selling Author, Fashion Designer and star of Television, Film and the Broadway Stage
"Like Vanessa has it all and then some! Gritty, poetic, emotionally true, Tami Charles wrings out every hope, every stumble and every triumph of a girl on an uneasy road to possessing her self, her strength and her own beauty. An unforgettable debut." --Rita Williams-Garcia, author of One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven
♦ "This debut is a treasure: a gift to every middle school girl who ever felt unpretty, unloved, and trapped by her circumstances."— Kirkus Reviews STARRED REVIEW
♦ "Charles evades the clichés and imbues Vanessa with an inner life that's so real and personal it's hard to deny the charm, heartbreak, and triumph of her story. . . . Superb."— Booklist STARRED REVIEW
♦ "Like Vanessa is an emotionally potent, engaging young adult story with a heroine whom it is impossible not to root for. The life lessons that Nessy learns are relevant and worthwhile for everyone."— Foreword Reviews STARRED REVIEW
Praise For Like Vanessa…
—Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW
♦ Vanessa Williams' 1983 win as the first black Miss America doesn't make the crown feel much closer to 13-year-old Vanessa Martin. Being raised in rundown Newark, New Jersey, young Vanessa feels too unpretty to even consider entering her school's beauty pageant, despite her amazing singing voice. Only at the urging of her new music teacher who happens to be in charge of the pageant, does Vanessa finally agree to participate, facing many challenges in the process. There is something retro in the execution and sincerity of Charles' semi-autobiographical debut novel. With its 80's "inner-city" setting and young black protagonist, guided to a better sense of self by a do-gooder white teacher, the story only needs to seat its characters backwards on school chairs to check all this genre's boxes. However, Charles evades the clichés and imbues Vanessa with an inner life that's so real and so personal it's hard to deny the charm, heartbreak, and triumph of her story. Additionally, the protagonist has a fractured and flawed, but loving, family at her back, which acts as a bulwark against her insecurities and drives the narrative to its hopeful, graceful conclusion. Best of all, is that with some support Vanessa ultimately finds strength in herself and goes on to be the greatest architect of her dreams. Superb.
—Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
♦ From the very first page, Like Vanessa conveys the hopes and fears of a girl who wishes for a different life. Nessy Martin is fourteen years old and living in Newark with her alcoholic grandfather, her mostly absent father, and her older cousin. Her mother left when she was just four years old, and Nessy has never understood why. The book takes place in the 1980s, just as Vanessa Williams becomes the first black woman to be crowned Miss America. Nessy dreams of being crowned herself, hoping that she can somehow win her mother’s approval. Though it scares her, she is convinced to enter a beauty pageant at her middle school, and in the process of preparing for the competition, she learns a great deal about herself and about the meaning of true beauty. Nessy’s descriptions of the local gang, the bodegas, and the music she hears drifting into her window at night bring her urban setting to life. Her understandings of her family members—a grandfather trying to forget, a cousin struggling with the safety of his differences—paint vivid portraits. Nessy’s desires and dreams of wealth and glamour are relatable, as is her lack of self-esteem. As, for the first time, her friends and family help her see the strong, talented, and beautiful young woman that she is, young adult audiences may be helped to similarly embrace how they, too, are worthwhile. Like Vanessa is an emotionally potent, engaging young adult story with a heroine whom it is impossible not to root for. The life lessons that Nessy learns are relevant and worthwhile for everyone.
—Foreword Reviews, STARRED REVIEW
Watching TV in the Newark, N.J., apartment she shares with her loving grandfather, big-hearted gay cousin, and reclusive father, Vanessa Martin feels "the tiniest piece of hope" as Vanessa Williams is crowned Miss America in 1983. Though Williams is lighter-skinned than she, the 13-year-old reasons that the pageant winner's victory "means that one day girls like me—the blackest of black—could be seen as pretty too." Throughout the course of Charles's sinuous novel, Vanessa reveals other deep-seated hopes: that she finds her mother, who disappeared years before, and that her father, who is "locked away in his chamber of inner demons," will also reemerge. When her insightful and supportive teacher encourages Vanessa, an honors student who sings magnificently, to enter the school pageant, she agrees, despite her self-doubt and classmates' jeers. Vanessa's honest, at times sardonic narrative—supplemented by poems and journal entries—tracks her burgeoning maturity as she discovers the essence of authentic friendship, comes to terms with family secrets, and gains the confidence to stay true to her vision. Loosely autobiographical, Charles's debut novel dexterously interlaces pathos and humor and introduces a refreshing new voice.
When Vanessa Williams is crowned the first black Miss America in 1983, her namesake Vanessa Martin is ecstatic. Despite considering herself “too dark” and “too fat” to win a contest, the Newark eighth-grader has always dreams of following in the footsteps of her own beauty-contestant mother, who took off when she was a baby, leaving the family “broken.” (“That was when everything changed…Pop Pop turned to booze, Daddy’s spirit up and died, and we moved to the projects.”) Vanessa gets her chance when her music teacher announces the school’s first-ever beauty pageant. Her emotionally distant father notwithstanding, Vanessa, a talented singer, receives encouragement to participate form her cousin TJ and grandfather Pop Pop. The process proves grueling, as Vanessa struggles to maintain friendships, develop self-confidence, and conform her family’s metaphorical demons. Sprinkled with poetry and motivational phrases from her entries in “Darlene,” as Vanessa names the diary she receives from Pop Pop every year, Charles’s debut novel will appeal to young readers, who will appreciate and empathize with the protagonist’s journey to earn the crown. Vanessa’s failures and triumphs lead both her and readers to realize the meaning of true beauty.
—The Horn Book
Thirteen-year-old Vanessa Martin dreams of two things: winning the Miss America pageant and her absent mother returning and bringing joy back to their family. For now, Nessy's world is one of poverty, substance abuse and seemingly constant struggle. But Vanessa Williams, an African American, has just won the Miss America pageant and Nessy's dream doesn't seem like such a long shot any longer. The historic win gives Nessy hope that "one day girls like me--the blackest of black--could be seen as pretty too." When the school music teacher, Mrs. Walton, announces that King Middle School will be hosting its own pageant, Nessy isn't sure she's up to the task. Nessy's alcoholic grandfather Pop Pop and cousin TJ, a talented fashion design student, join Mrs. Walton's pleas for her to reconsider. Though Nessy's father is firmly against the pageant, Nessy agrees and begins secretly to prepare for the big night. Like Vanessa, Tami Charles's debut novel, delves into the gritty realities of life in poverty-stricken Newark, N.J., in the early 1980s. Nessy is lovable and inspiring, overcoming not just poverty and racism, but her own insecurities. She even grows to see herself as beautiful and "not just the pretty-for-a-dark-skinned-girl comments [she] sometimes gets from the folks at church." Nessy's growth and inner struggles are beautifully highlighted by her own short poems interspersed throughout the book. Charles's writing is engaging and her characters are infused with a subtle depth and resonance that leave deep impressions even with only brief appearances. Complex and heartfelt, Like Vanessa is a truly remarkable coming-of-age tale. Discover: In New Jersey in 1983, 13-year-old African American Vanessa Martin decides to compete in her school's beauty pageant.
Vanessa's amazing voice catches the attention of her passionate music teacher, who convinces the 13-year-old to embrace her talent and enter the school's beauty pagent.
—Booklist, included in the STEAM-Driven Middle-Grade Fiction roundup
Charlesbridge, 9781580897778, 288pp.
Publication Date: March 13, 2018
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. Why does Mrs. Walton insist that Vanessa enter the school’s beauty pageant?
2. Why is Mrs. Walton so drawn to helping Vanessa with the pageant?
3. Why does Vanessa think she cannot enter the beauty pageant?
4. Vanessa has a support network. Why does she still feel like an outsider?
5. Vanessa doesn’t understand her father. What do you think is the issue between them?
6. TJ seems happy with his life. In 1983, in the projects, he might have reason to be frightened and unhappy. Discuss why. What is the difference between TJ and Vanessa?
7. How does Darlene help Vanessa?
8. Why do TJ and Pop Pop want Vanessa to enter the pageant?
9. When Vanessa sings, what does she see when she closes her eyes? Do you know how she feels?
10. What does Pop Pop give Vanessa for good luck when she auditions for the pageant? What is the significance of this exchange?
11. How does Vanessa and Tanisha’s relationship evolve over the course of the book?
12. Do you trust Beatriz? Why or Why not?
13. Why won’t Vanessa use her bathtub? How does she overcome her fear?
14. TJ has a dangerous crush. Is he naïve or progressive in his behavior?
15. Why do you think Beatriz betrays Vanessa to her father? What does this mean to Vanessa?
16. Why wouldn’t Vanessa’s father support her dreams?
17. When Vanessa discovers the truth about her mother, what goes through her mind? How would you feel? Did you want a different outcome?
18. What becomes of TJ after he is jumped by the Diablos? Did you see this coming?
19. Describe how Vanessa and Daddy’s relationship evolves throughout the novel.
20. What was Vanessa’s true victory?
21. Identify the historical moments presented in “Like Vanessa.” How do these “current events” contribute to the novel?
22. Vanessa desperately wants to be like her idol, Vanessa Williams. How does this evolve throughout the novel? What does young Vanessa learn in the end?