Shelf Awareness: Miss Idaho’s Guide to Books

I started reading books to lose myself between the pages, and along the way, I ended up finding myself there too. What began as an escape from the world around me transformed into one of my biggest passions. My love for reading stems from my elementary school days. Nothing made me more excited than attending a book fair or visiting my public library. In middle school, my book branch was cut short after being ridiculed by my classmates for my nerdy hobbies. So, I traded my library card for a basketball and tried to fit in by blending in with others. For the next eight years, I never read for fun again. Then in March during my junior year of college, one of my friends dragged me to the library with her and suggested we buddy read a new book she was eyeing. Since then, my life has been a colorful blur of novels, seventy-one to be exact.


One of my favorite book-related quotes is, “The reader lives a thousand lives, the man who never reads lives only one”. I read all genres of books, because each style offers a different perspective of the world. An ode to a recent series I just finished reading, An Ember in the Ashes, all of us are nothing but glimmers in the great darkness of time. I view books as torches against the night sky, sparks that illuminate a seemingly incomprehensible world. The more you read, the more vivid and perspicuous the world becomes. If you’re a long-time reader or looking to try reading again like myself, here are some of my favorite books I’ve read this year. I hope they inspire you in the ways they inspired me.

Historical Fiction/Fiction:

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

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“An almighty battle between gods and kings, peace and glory, immortal fame and the human heart”, The Song of Achilles is an unforgettable tale of the Greek legend Achilles with a focus on the man rather than the hero. I am a big fan of history, and I think this book best mirrors the plot of Titanic. You know what happens in the Battle of Troy (if not, the expression “Achilles Heel” should be self-explanatory enough), you can feel the disaster of an iceberg approaching, but you don’t know exactly how the ending will play out. When the inevitable battle scene begins, Madeline Miller makes you see Achilles as the mortal warrior rather than the invincible hero and feel the heartache for, in my opinion, one of the greatest love stories of all time- even if it is only historical fiction.

Every Note Played by Lisa Genova

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I read this book before winning Miss Idaho, and I credit its story for allowing me to decipher the emotions behind my piano performance and share them with the audience. Every Note Played follows an accomplished concert pianist after his diagnosis of ALS (an incurable neurodegenerative disease). This story reminded me to play every note with the knowledge that our abilities are gifts we may not always have the luxury of keeping. Thank you, Jim from Meet AC, for gifting me my own copy of this book at Miss America. The last thing I did backstage before performing my piano piece on national television was read my favorite chapter


Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

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This book takes place in Idaho! Based on the true story of a girl born into a survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho, Educated: A Memoir peers into the mind of a self-taught girl who discovers the true meaning and cost of an education. Despite being kept out of school by her parents, Tara Westover went on to earn her Ph.D. from Cambridge University.

The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani

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I read this book in preparation for Miss America. It quickly became one of the most insightful pieces I’ve ever read and a real asset in my private interview with the Miss America judges. The Death of Truth analyzes the historical undoing of America’s free press and the danger fake news poses to our future.


The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

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“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

“True strength isn’t about sovereignty. It’s about knowing when you need help and having courage to accept it.”

“It all seemed so important in the night, but when the sun rose and you were gone, the light didn’t shine as bright.”

An Arabian Night’s inspired tale, The Wrath and the Dawn is by far my favorite fantasy novel and the enabler of my quote obsession.

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

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Also by Renee Ahdieh, Flame in the Mist is a take on modern day Mulan set in a fantasy version of Japan.

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

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The Cruel Prince is probably the most “fantasy” out of the bunch, but I binge read this book in one day. Dark, wicked, and suspenseful, this book oozes with the perils of power in an atmosphere of terror. Even if you don’t like fantasy, I encourage you to give this one a try.

Young Adult:

This is arguably my favorite genre. Just know that you are never too old for a little young adult. To preface this, I am painfully single and unapologetically enjoy reading cheesy love stories. That being said, don’t worry. If you are not a hopeless romantic like myself, I have also included some of my favorite young adult stories that do not possess the “cheese factor”.

The Selection by Kiera Cass

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This was the book that rekindled my love for reading. I describe it as Miss America meets The Bachelor meets The Hunger Games. Thirty-five girls in a dystopian, caste system land compete for the chance of a lifetime: to marry Prince Maxon and become Queen. There’s glitz and glam, blood and mystery, and most of all, a total of five books in the series that all leave you wanting more.

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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“No one goes on, but what we leave behind keeps us alive for someone else.”

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people just exist, that’s all” - Oscar Wilde

If you’ve ever wanted to read a book that reminds you of your mortality, this is the one for you. In this dystopian land, people are given a twenty-four-hour notice before they die. In They Both Die at the End, two strangers set to die on the same day connect and have the adventure of a lifetime. This book is the only one I feel comfortable giving a spoiler to, because surprise, they really do both die at the end.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

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I love this book for two reasons. One: Peter Kavinsky, and Two: it is one of the few YA books (and movies) with an Asian protagonist. Lara Jean in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is exactly the kind of girl I was in high school, and I have watched the Netflix movie more times than I would like to admit. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a beautiful coming of age novel with characters that you will fall madly in love with (I repeat: Peter Kavinsky).

Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes

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This is a refreshing young adult book that does not shy away from discussing mental health. The main character Maguire battles coping with PTSD, anxiety, and an awful streak of bad luck as she navigates high school and of course, a swoon worthy romance with tennis prodigy, Jordy.

The Lies About Truth by Courtney C. Stevens

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“Sometimes the journey to let someone love you is the journey to loving yourself”

Sometimes stories about loss and death just don’t quite make the mark in Young Adult books. The Lies About Truth is an exception. In order to love who you are, you cannot hate the experiences that shaped you. After surviving a car accident that killed one of her friends, Sadie struggles to embrace her future while trapped in her past. Sadie still wears the crippling scars and physical disabilities that follow the car accident. The Lies About Truth rings true to the saying, “the worst lies we give are the ones we tell ourselves”.

To Sash or Save: The Cost of Winning a Crown

In an organization that bolsters helping women with the financial means to pursue higher education, it is ironic that Miss America also unintentionally encourages an unhealthy, exorbitant expenditure in the categories necessary to win money in the first place. Perhaps the allure of winning scholarship money is eclipsed by fulfilling childhood dreams of being Miss America or the glistening opportunity of winning a crown. However, Miss America is first and foremost a scholarship organization- the largest scholarship provider for young women in the country. With that in mind, it is somewhat shocking how young women spend thousands of dollars each year to compete in a pageant only to walk away with, most commonly, a few hundred to a few thousand dollars and (hopefully) a sparkly new crown. According to an online study, pageant contestants spend on average between $2,475 and $15,000 on gowns, wardrobe, hair & makeup, shoes, and coaching before even stepping foot on a stage. Yes, a few girls win enough money to graduate college debt free, but the majority rarely break even to justify the money spent with the scholarships won. While the cost of competing in a pageant varies for each state and pageant system, logistically speaking, is the amount of money spent on a pageant proportional to the outcome?


When I was a senior in high school, my mom took me to Ypsilon Dresses in Salt Lake City, Utah to find a dress for my very first local competition, Miss Meridian. Miss Meridian was only a week away, and I still could not find a dress long enough for my six-foot frame. I serendipitously stumbled upon a light pink Jovani evening gown that was the first (and only) dress I had found that afforded me the luxury of wearing high heels. At that point, the price did not matter. The gown cost $500 which at the time, seemed like a lot of money to spend on one wardrobe item. However, after competing at Miss Idaho for three years and then Miss America, I have come to realize that $500 is nothing compared to the cost of custom and couture dresses some girls spend on one frock. A myriad of contestant’s evening gowns cost more than my fall quarter tuition at UC Davis. With the competitive misconception that “new and expensive” gives you an edge in the competition, it is no wonder women invest a copious amount of money into an evening gown with the hopes that it will be their winning ticket to the crown. Kudos to the girls who have the ability and desire to spend that kind of money in pageantry, however for the others like myself who are already riddled with student loans and debt, know that you do not have to break the bank to capture a crown.

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The same light pink evening gown I bought my senior year of high school was the same evening gown I wore as a rising senior in college when I won Miss Idaho. Three years, eight competitions, one dress. While my light pink dress has definitely lost its luster, it is proof that you can be successful in pageants on a budget. Furthermore, it attests that dresses don’t win pageants, but the girls wearing them do. I have lost more times than I won wearing my light pink evening gown. Each year at Miss Idaho, my dress stayed the same. It was the girl wearing the dress who changed. Instead of investing more money every year in a new dress, I invested time in upgrading myself. Never discount your capabilities because your bank account dips lower than your dreams. To this day, I am still relieved to have found a dress that didn’t end at my ankles, but most of all, I am grateful I chose to wear that same dress throughout my entire Miss Idaho pageant career. Call it fate or my lucky dress, I call it the best five-hundred dollars I ever spent.


The Miss America Effect

For my 21st birthday, my dad gifted me a book titled “Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People”. As I was reading this book in preparation for Miss America, I came across an interesting phenomenon called the Pygmalion Effect. In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with the statue of a woman he carved. Pygmalion desperately wanted his sculpture to be real. One day the marble became flesh, and Pygmalion’s archetype woman was born. The legend of Pygmalion transposes to modern times and insinuates that great expectations lead to great results. As I was digesting this new information, I began to wonder what my personal expectations were for the Miss America Competition, and I can assure you, the thought of making Top 10 did not even exist in my wildest dreams.


Rather than expecting awards or accolades, my Pygmalion Effect was personal, not professional. I entered Miss America with the notion that this would be my last competition, my final chance to showcase the years of hard work, perseverance, and personal growth procured since my very first local in 2015. The weeks before I left for Atlantic City, I studied. I fervently read books, reflected on my past experiences, learned from influential people in the Idaho community, and formulated an idea of what being Miss America would mean to me. Visually speaking, Miss America prep mirrored studying for the most challenging test of my life. Instead of fifty multiple-choice Macroeconomics questions or a grueling ten-page paper on infrastructure in the developing world, this was a test of self-actualization, a battle of my past’s ability to shape my present. My biggest takeaway: hard work is shown from the inside out.

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This was a new revelation for me considering I spent the last three years polishing my personal appearance, perfecting my evening gown walk, and practicing my public speaking skills. While those areas of preparation did help me succeed in the past, I knew that being Miss America requires skills that aren’t always displayed on stage. When I was called into the Top 15 and then the Top 10, I was astonished. After all, placement was not a priority for me. However, by focusing on performing my best, I was unknowingly setting myself up for success.


My Miss America outcome was not achieved alone. Thank you to my Miss Idaho board & volunteers for always believing in me, my family for always supporting me (my mom and sister created the majority of my “Show Us Your Shoes” Parade costume), and my sponsors for their unparalleled generosity. Allison’s Dresses, Regalia, Dillard’s, Stewart’s Gem Shop, Red Aspen, Rachel at Love Nails, Lash Divas, NanaMacs Boutique, and Marbella at Paradigm Salon all helped me shine on stage.


Perhaps the Pygmalion Effect can be described in a more specific sense and draw causation between positive, personal expectations and external success. Competing at Miss America has taught me that when you prioritize your personal success, you can find reward and satisfaction manifest to other areas of your life, and you don’t need to be on a stage to achieve it. Thank you to my dad for gifting me the most valuable birthday present I have ever received. I did not just learn “The Science of Succeeding with People”, I discovered the science of succeeding with myself, or as I now call it, the Miss America Effect.


The Keys to Success

88 keys lay before me, 88 doors never unlocked until my freshman year of high school. Seven years ago, I had my very first piano lesson. Before then, I thought music was meant to be played like a checklist, each note and measure building up to the inevitable return to silence. I never knew that music is meant to be savored, notes melodically stringing together like veins in the human body. Each vein in our body is essential, carrying blood towards our heart. Similarly, I found each key on the piano vital, transporting soul from our hearts and through our ears. The moment I touched my first key, middle C, on the piano, I knew I had found my key to music.

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Bono once said, “Music can change the world because it can change people”. Since my first piano lesson, music has changed me. While the keys on the piano are black and white, playing the piano allowed me to share the spectrum of creativity, emotion, and humanity I had not found the courage to voice. So many things in our lives are out of our control, yet I found comfort in the feelings that piano creates. More so, I found expression in the seemingly endless variations of styles, key signatures and techniques.

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Perhaps my unconventional journey with music can also change the world. With the increasing number of six-year-old piano prodigies on YouTube and the toxic, competitive environment we live in today, it is easy to believe that mastery has a cutoff age. However, I am proof that the place you start does not determine how far you can go. There are only 88 keys on the piano, keys that are open to everyone, but only connect to those who invest passion, diligence and perseverance. Of the many lessons the piano has taught me, the greatest one is this: “Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put the passing time to the best possible use.” –Earl Nightingale

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