Like Vanessa

Like Vanessa


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Middle graders will laugh and cry with thirteen-year-old Vanessa Martin as she tries to be like Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America.

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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781580898997
Publisher: Charlesbridge
Publication date: 03/05/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 137,370
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 10 - 12 Years

About the Author

Tami Charles is a former teacher and full-time author of picture books, middle grade and young adult novels, and nonfiction. As a teacher, she made it her mission to introduce her students to all types of literature, but especially diverse books. While it was refreshing to see a better selection than what she was accustomed to as a child, Tami felt there weren’t nearly as many diverse books as she’d hoped for. It was then that she decided to reignite her passion for writing. Tami is the author of the middle grade novel Like Vanessa (2018) and the picture book Freedom Soup (Candlewick Press, 2019).

Read an Excerpt

Fifty Stinkin’ Years
Pop Pop gave me my very first “Darlene” eight years ago and a brand-new one every year after that—custom-made of pressed, dried wildflowers spanning every color of the rainbow. Most kids my age would call Darlene a diary, but she’s much more than a place to write stupid lists of the cutest guys in eighth grade. Darlene’s my chill spot: a place to share the lyrics in my head, the words crawling through my bones, the latest gossip running through Grafton Hill. Today’s hot topic? Miss America.
Pop Pop and I got a bet going for this year. Miss America’s never crowned a black girl . . . ever. And that pageant’s been going on every year since 1933! Way I see it, the powers that be have no plans whatsoever to pick a girl who looks like me. Let Pop Pop tell you: everything’s gonna change this year.
Watching Miss America is our little tradition. Each of us eyeing the screen, clutching onto a memory long gone. His memory is of time with his daughter, my mother. Honey-eyed, vanilla-coated, lullaby-singing angel. Him pretending that on this very day, every year, he could have a piece of his little girl back through me. And me watching alongside Pop Pop. My memory: pushing, hoping, forcing myself to remember her. To remember what having a mother feels like. To, even for a second, drown myself in her beauty even though I don’t look a thing like her.
I pull out the hot comb, pomade, and all my favorite hair bows. Pop Pop lets me straighten and braid his hair while he nurses a coffee cup of whiskey. Me pretending I’m the one getting my hair done, and Mama’s doing it. Pop Pop pretending the whiskey’s a cure-all. A magic potion in all of its bittersweetness, helping him remember too.
 The hot comb glides through with ease. My grandfather has some silky, long, curly hair. Says he gets it from his Cherokee side. That Cherokee blood must have skipped over me.
Halfway through the show, two black women make it to the top ten: Miss New York, Vanessa Williams, and Miss New Jersey, Suzette Charles. They’re both so beautiful—black, the light-skinned and curly-haired type like Pop Pop and Mama. Maybe they got some Cherokee in them too.
“This is it, Nessy!” Pop Pop says before they start to announce the top five. “This is our year. Get on in here, TJ, we ’bout to make history!”
My cousin TJ comes running into the living room, feather boa in one hand, pen and sketch pad in the other. He wraps the boa around my neck, saying, “Here you go, Miss America!” Then he plops down on the couch and starts drawing pageant gowns like mad.
On the fuzzy black-and-white screen, Gary Collins starts announcing the runners-up. And just as Pop Pop predicts, this is the year African Americans make history at the Miss America pageant. Because not one but two black women are standing there, waiting to be announced as the new winner. My fists clench with the strength of an army ten thousand strong, hopes flying sky-high, anxiety drowning in my chest. Would the Miss America pageant even let a black girl win? Give girls like me the tiniest piece of hope that, yes, black is beautiful? Even if it means that they’d start with the light-and-bright, two-shades-from-white kind? Because if so, then that means that one day girls like me—the blackest of black—could be seen as pretty too.
Suzette Charles takes the first runner-up spot. And at this point, I’m thinking, Okay, we came close enough. We ain’t gonna see a day like this for probably another fifty years.
“And your new Miss America is . . . Vanessa Williams!” Gary Collins shouts into the microphone.
And I swear I just about lose my mind!
The spotlights lower onto Vanessa’s bad-to-the-bone, silver-and-white, one-shouldered gown. The audience thunders with applause. After the crown is placed on her head, she takes her ceremonial walk down the runway. And she’s working it too. Hips swaying. Teeth all shining. And she’s got that Miss America wave down pat. I stare at the screen. Stare real long and hard. Vanessa Williams’s face fades away, and Mama’s sets in. I mean, really, they could be twins.
It’s like Mama can see me through that television. Right through me. And the way she’s looking, it’s like she’s making a promise. She’ll come back some day. When things are right. When all the broken pieces are mended back together. We’ll go back to the time when we were us—the Martins—minus the booze, minus the stares, minus the whispers.
These days, you might as well call us the left behinds. We’re the ones that were left behind the day Mama walked out all those years ago. That was when everything changed: the rest of the family forgot about us, Pop Pop turned to booze, Daddy’s spirit up and died, and we moved to the projects of Grafton Hill. Daddy walked into that empty bedroom of his, soul black as night, and locked his door. And I ain’t seen the inside of that room or his heart ever since. Only comes out to go to work, which can be anytime, day or night.
Things will get better again. Mama’s voice whispers through the television, sweet like honeydew in summer. A shiver courses through the arch of my back.
I’m soaking in Mama (well, Vanessa) through that screen, as if she sees me, the real me. It’s like I know I gotta do something to make everything right. For everybody. All I gotta do is find Mama. But how?
I’m sitting on our brown shag carpet, boohooing like a dang fool, clutching onto Darlene, shoulders shaking worse than an earthquake. My prayers turn to words that I hold on to, fighting to remember, so me and Darlene can talk about it later.
Next thing I know, I’m up off that floor, wiping away my tears, jumping up and down and clapping my hands. I’m clapping for Vanessa, clapping for Mama, clapping for me. All the years I’ve watched this pageant and not once did I see a black girl win. Nobody ever did. Not before tonight. I know I’m never gonna forget this. I start prancing around the room, doing the Miss America wave. Close my eyes real tight-like. Picture that Miss America crown on Mama’s head. Picture it on mine too. Picture Daddy smiling again, wrapping his big old earthy hands around Mama’s tiny little waist, like he used to do.
Pop Pop pulls me close to his chest, his liquor-laden scent stinging my nose. “That’s gonna be you one day, Nessy. Your singing is just as good as Vanessa Williams’s. And Miss America’s even got the same name as you. It’s meant to be, baby girl!”
“Yeah, and when you do make it to Miss America, you already know who’s doing all of your styling! I won’t even charge you full price!” TJ jokes.
And in that moment I believe what they say could be true for me. That I could be like Vanessa Williams. Long as it doesn’t take no fifty stinkin’ years. ’Cause I’m not sure me and Mama got that kind of time on our hands.

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