Like Vanessa

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. --Kyla Paterno, former YA and children's book buyer

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