Cupcakes and Cacti, Meteors and Magic: Miss Meteor by Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore

Chicky Quintanilla is a gawky, gangly girl with one friend and a major lack of confidence. Lita Perez is a glittering ball of sunshine who no one really appreciates. Once upon a time, they were best friends who shared their love of old-timey movies and goofing off in the desert. Now they barely speak and move through high school secretly pining for each other but unable to breach the divide. Desperate to keep a huge secret from Lita, Chicky pushed her away so much that eventually Lita stopped trying. But Lita has a secret of her own: she and Bruja Lupe, the woman who raised her as a daughter, are made of stardust.

With the annual Meteor Regional Pageant and Talent Competition Showcase coming up fast, Chicky hatches a plan to get back at Kendra Kendall—a local Mean Girl who has made Chicky’s life a living nightmare—by sabotaging her run for the pageant crown. At the same time, Lita decides to enter the pageant hoping to do one last fun thing before her body turns back into stardust. With the help of Chicky’s brash older sisters, Junior, their school’s resident artist, and Cole Kendall, a trans boy who uses his privilege to protect those without any, Lita and Chicky take on queer- and transphobia, white supremacy, and the patriarchy.

Chicky and Lita are the kind of girls who rarely get to helm a young adult novel. Lita is short, fat, brown, and proud of it, even when others try to make her feel bad about herself. She is unabashedly herself, a girl literally made of stars and space dust who talks to cacti and eats cupcakes with jalapeños on top. Chicky, on the other hand, is the self-doubting tomboy to Lita’s pretty pretty princess. She hides herself in grungy clothes, an uneven haircut, and piles of hesitation and apprehension. Years of public humiliation and queerphobic remarks have left her barricaded in the closet, afraid to tell the truth to the girl she’s known since childhood. Neither girl is complete without each other, but both have pushed each other away with their secrets. Lita needs Chicky’s support to ground her (literally and metaphorically) and Chicky needs Lita’s courage to help her finally come out.

Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore both have a knack for creating complicated, morally gray antagonists. Rather than create full on monsters, they flesh out characters who do and think good and bad things, often at the same time. Here, the two main antagonists are Kendra Kendall and her boyfriend Royce Bradley. Royce comes the closest to a traditional mustache-twirling baddie. He’s hateful for the sheer fun of it, a bully of epic proportion, a boy who delights in hurting the vulnerable. There is no redeeming someone like him. Royce floats on a cloud of privilege so big no confrontation can truly harm him. As awkward as Chicky is, she makes an easy target for a predator like him, and he extracts every drop of pleasure he can from humiliating her.

And then there’s Kendra. With everything going on in the Kendall household, it’s no wonder she thinks Royce is her golden ticket out. Kendra molds herself into the kind of girl an asshole like him would want to date, but we can still see glimpses of a decent person buried in layers upon layers of petty cruelties. Dating him means not just accepting his ruthlessness but participating in it. Royce is a small town prince whose whiteness and wealth will probably only make him more insufferable as he grows up; for Kendra, maturity will either open her eyes or close her mind, and she will make the choice knowing the consequences of it.

Each antagonist represents a different side of the patriarchy: those who dominate and the people who prop them up and protect them. Twisted up in her boyfriend’s awfulness, Kendra ends up in the seemingly contradictory position of simultaneously shaming other people who are queer while caring about her trans brother. Yet when viewed through the lens of the patriarchy, the contradictions fall apart. The respect others—including his sister—have for Cole Kendall is dependent on him adhering to strict gender roles. As long as he acts like a Man’s Man while doing Sports Things and Hanging Out With The Boys, he’s tolerated (if not truly accepted).

Cole tries so hard to pass that he’s lost sight of himself. If he steps too far from his prescribed role, he’s afraid he’ll be punished, too. Junior shows Cole there are myriad ways to be a man that don’t have toxic masculinity as a main ingredient. Lita has a lot of “girlie” qualities—she likes pink and sparkles and sugary treats—but her race and body shape mark her as different in a society that despises difference. Chicky is redefining femininity in ways that work for herself, even if she doesn’t realize she’s doing it and even if the rest of her town disagrees with her choices. Lita and Chicky break Western society’s gender rules, intentionally and inherently, which gives the patriarchy an excuse to torment them. The questions of gender identity and gender expression pop up again and again. As a cis person, I’m sure I missed some of the subtext, but what I saw of it was profound and earnest.

This novel is the perfect blend of Tehlor Kay Mejia’s brazen and daring adventures and Anna-Marie McLemore’s quiet explorations of identity, friendships, and social expectations. The book is sweet and charming with the a cast of characters that will tug at your heartstrings. But there’s a heat, too, of fiery personalities and passionate relationships. Rich with magical realism and dazzling prose, Miss Meteor checks every box. I can’t wait for teens grappling with gender identity and expression to find this novel and see themselves reflected.

Miss Meteor is available from Harper Teen.

Alex Brown is a librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter, Instagram, and her blog.

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