There’s a line in the show Community, where Jeff Winger, referring to Dean Pelton’s novel-in-progress Time Desk: the Chronicles of Dean Dangerous, says: “That is gonna be the worst book I’ll ever read cover-to-cover.” And that was pretty much how I felt the moment I heard Tyra Banks, creator and host of my favorite reality show, America’s Next Top Model, was going to be publishing a YA novel. Spoilers from here on out.
Modelland is 563 pages, which, if you read the acknowledgements, is a trimmed-down version of the 1000 page manuscript she submitted. I will give Tyra credit: while she does not necessarily have the writing talent to back it up, she is never lacking in imagination. Modelland is the story of Tookie de la Creme (don’t roll your eyes just yet, that is far from the stupidest character name in the book), an unusual-looking girl who somehow finds herself being chosen to attend the mysterious, magical, exclusive Modelland school on top of a dangerous mountain*.
(*Tookie’s name does appear on the official list, unlike her other atypical-looking friends, but while she overhears that her inclusion in Modelland is for an experiment of some sort on behalf of headmistress The Belladonna, we never really find out why. Presumably that will come out in Modelland II. One of my pet peeves is all the books being released these days (Matched, Divergent, the dreadful Abandon) that end on a note of vague resolution and a winking nod to ‘wait ’til you see what happens next!’. In my opinion, a good series doesn’t need to tempt you with unanswered threads, it entices you with the universe itself and makes you crave more. Not to beat a dead horse, but Harry Potter is a wonderful example of this. Or His Dark Materials. Or A Series of Unfortunate Events. Or Hunger Games, before it got too weird. Need I go on?)
One of the first things anyone will ever teach you about writing is to write what you know. Tyra knows modeling, she knows plucking girls from obscurity and making them compete for ‘fame’ (the fact that few Top Models go on to true fame is irrelevant and will never stop me from watching that show), she knows making up ridiculous words and talking in bizarre and borderline offensive accents. And by gum, that is what she writes about. (A friend and fellow Top Model enthusiast, when he found out I was reading this, asked me, “How many times does the word ‘smize’ show up?” Because Tyra has invented the term ‘smize’, to smile with your eyes, and likes to spout it at every opportunity. My favorite moment takes place in the prologue on page 2, where the sassy, unseen narrator (you can tell she’s sassy because she calls you ‘dahling’) says:
Nevertheless, you and every young girl in the world vie for an opportunity on The Day of Discovery, which is grander than every global holiday combined. Making the delirium even more intense, the Land sends seven talismans called SMIZEs into the world. (What an arcane word! Who thought of such a thing?)
Way to pat yourself on the back, there, Tyra.)
But let’s get down to brass tacks: Tyra has created a fantastical, if not confusing world, where everyone wants to be a beautiful Intoxibella (Modelland-speak for supermodel), because not only are they hugely famous, they also have inexplicable magic powers (things like teleportation, the ability to multiply oneself, releasing powerful pheromones to entice you to buy, etc.). Every year, girls compete by walking for fifteen minutes, waiting to be chosen by a Scout to go to Modelland and go through the rigors of school, only to compete in a tournament before the seven new Intoxibellas are decided. That’s the general premise, but if that weren’t enough, we also have Tookie suffering through both father and mother issues, as Tookie’s mother is a crazypants lady obsessed with looking young and also obsessed with a creepy doll she carries around, and Tookie’s father is a one-eyed former acrobat, who is now a drunkard and threatened to send Tookie to live in a factory, because he no longer believes she’s his daughter. That, incidentally, is unresolved.
From there, we have: the bitchy girl (Zarpessa) who tries to sabotage Tookie’s time at Modelland at every turn; the ridiculously handsome dude (Bravo) who likes the beauty of Tookie’s soul; the atypical-looking friends (Dylan, Piper, and Shiraz) who Tookie suspects might have been brought here to be sacrificed and/or experimented on; the crazy rogue super-supermodel (Ci~L, yes, with a tilde) who has vanished from the civilian world and is being punished at Modelland for unknown reasons (is she friend or foe?); a series of bizarre creatures that are part genetic mutant and part the result of experiments, born in the secret underground town beneath Modelland (that is never seen and only referred to once), that run all the lessons; a side story that only shows up in the latter third of the novel, where Tookie’s mother (Creamy de la Creme) and sister (Myrracle – true story, I accidentally typed ‘syster’ initially) brave the horrible trek up the mountain to break into Modelland, thus contracting a terrible plague. There is a lot going on.
Did I like it? I honestly have no idea. I was consistently entertained, which is not a bad thing. The romance was secondary, which I appreciated, as the main themes of the book were ‘sisterhood is fierce’ and ‘everyone is beautiful in their own way’ (very Tyra). The characters all got backstories and things to do, even if they weren’t executed in the most natural way. Contrast it with something like Twilight, where absolutely nothing happens except a girl falls in love with a glittery vampire and then maybe there’s a fight, sort of, and she has no friends except the ones that are in love with her. Not to get off-topic. The point is, for all of its weird names (Theophilus, ZhenZhen, Persimmon, Gunnero Narzz, Pacifico, it goes on) and general eyebrow-raising writing, things happen in Modelland. It is nothing if not interesting. Modelland II is going to be the worst book I read cover-to-cover.