cover image Like Vanessa

Like Vanessa

Tami Charles, illus. by Vanessa Brantley Newton.. Charlesbridge, $16.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-58089-777-8

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%E2%80%94the blackest of black%E2%80%94could 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%E2%80%94supplemented by poems and journal entries%E2%80%94tracks 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. Ages 10-up. (Mar.)