September 05, 2011

Monday Review: NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL by Justina Chen

Dear FCC: I got a copy of this book from my library.

North of Beautiful is another absorbing story of identity—and what truly makes us US, both inside and out—from Justina Chen, author of Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies) (reviewed here) and Girl Overboard (reviewed here).

Just as a quick aside, I want to mention how much I liked the cover for this one—rather than being a headless figure (you know how I feel about those), we have ONLY A HEAD! More than that, though, I really thought the use of a compass rose overlaying her cheek was an evocative way to depict the character's birthmark without being too literal about it. Kudos!

Reader Gut Reaction: There is a lot of just plain cool stuff in this book: geocaching, a trip to China (which brought back some fun travel memories), heartfelt artwork, and a hot Asian Goth guy. But that doesn't detract from the seriousness of the story itself. Terra Cooper (the narrator) and her brothers Claudius and Mercatur were all rather unfortunately given cartographical monikers by their father, a disgraced mapmaker who rules the family with an iron fist. Terra doesn't want to make waves any more than she has to—she already attracts enough attention with the port-wine birthmark that spreads across her cheek. But when the good-looking Jacob enters her life with a crash—literally—Terra ultimately has to rethink whether attracting attention is a bad thing, or maybe, sometimes, a good thing...

Concerning Character: Each character in this book—and there is a sizable cast of minor characters in addition to the protagonist Terra and her love interest, Jacob—is believable and fully rounded. I was impressed by the realistic portrayal of a wide range of motivations and reactions, particularly within Terra's family, when it comes to her father, mother, and brothers and how they deal with tensions in the family. Each sibling, and even Terra's mother, reacts differently to her father's tyranny over their lives; however, that tyranny itself is not simply gratuitous but is there for a reason, a reaction to his own troubles. Terra's fear, her desire to be normal and to not be equated with her birthmark, rings true for anyone who has ever felt judged by their appearance, and hampered by those judgments.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Stories of self-discovery and opening oneself up to the unknown, like Beth Kephart's Nothing but Ghosts (reviewed here); stories about finding yourself by getting a little lost in unexpected places, like Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee (reviewed here) and Chasing Alliecat by Rebecca Fjelland Davis (reviewed here). Stories about broken families trying to heal, like Split by Swati Avasthi (reviewed here).

Themes & Things: In the end, this story conveys the idea that we can find hope in finding ourselves, and that sometimes you have to be willing to lose yourself—to let go of what you think is YOU—in order to find yourself. Also important is the idea of beauty—inner and outer, and which is truly the most important to making us who we are.

Authorial Asides: Justina Chen keeps a blog, Wordlings, and she's also one of the co-founders of the fabulous Readergirlz project. You can see her (and me!) speak as part of a panel on diversity at this year's Kidlitcon in Seattle, Sept. 16-17.

You can find North of Beautiful at an independent bookstore near you!


Anonymous said...

I've had this book recommended before, and I've picked it up a couple of times. But the font puts me off. It seems hard to read. Was that a problem for you, or did you adjust to it quickly?

Sarah Stevenson said...

(Jenn, is that you?) I totally agree with you about the font--it made the book a bit difficult to read. I guess I'm very sensitive to font styles, and things like relative size and spacing. I did adjust, but it would pop out at me now and again. This happens to me with Jordan Sonnenblick's books, too, which are all set in Gill Sans--a font I really like, but which seems odd in a book-length format.

OK, getting off my font-nerd high horse now... :)

LinWash said...

I also noticed the font. But I pushed past that. I absolutely loved this book!

Saints and Spinners said...

I enjoyed this book and have recommended it to others. I appreciated a number of things:
1. The romantic interest had a cleft palate.
2. The abuse of the father was emotional, not physical, i.e. no scars show and therefore it's harder to prove to outsiders.
3. There were no pat solutions or easy reconciliations, but there were reconciliations.

Off-topic, I'm amused that my word verifier is "tinhead."

Sarah Stevenson said...

Hee! Tinhead.

I liked those aspects of the book, too. It was also really rewarding by the end (minor spoilers) to watch Terra and her mother both gain a stronger sense of themselves--but in a very believable way, not in an overnight-makeover kind of way.