Sunday, February 13, 2011

North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley

This young adult novel was recommended to me by a former co-worker in South Carolina who teaches a high school class which focuses on current young adult novels.  She seems to really have a finger on the pulse of the young adult fiction world and I’m so grateful for her recommendations!  Not only do her students get to read popular YA fiction, she also works to bring the authors into the classroom through multi-media conferencing – Skype.  Kudos to you, Susan, for bringing the very best to education!  (On a side note, if this is something you’d like to consider for your classroom, check out the following website – also found on my Resources page:

Terra Cooper is a high school senior who is on a quest for beauty.  More than that, she is on a quest to find herself.  All of her life, she has been “cursed” with a port-wine stain (birthmark) which stretches across one side of her face and she has undergone surgery after surgery to lighten it.  None of these procedures was successful. 

Terra and her brothers were named after lexicon from geographic maps, as their father was once considered an expert on the subject.  But after staking his reputation on a falsified Chinese map, he lost all credibility and let this one mistake define him - just as Terra, through his constant criticisms of her face, lets the stain define her.  Terra’s father’s failure resonates throughout the household.  He allows no one happiness since he feels none - only humiliation.  His verbal abuse has forced her brothers to move away and she spends her time at home trying to blanket the barbs aimed at her mother. 

When Terra and her mother have the opportunity to visit the oldest brother in China, they cling to it.  Their journey takes them around the globe literally, but ultimately forces them to look deep within their own hearts for their individual truths. 

This book is reminiscent of Sarah Dessen's work in the fact that family conflict is a central theme.  Terra is strongly written as a girl with beauty and talent beyond the obvious.  Her family members are each unique and realistic in their response to the father’s verbal abuse.  And I love how the physical quest becomes more of a individual quest for enlightenment.  Maps do not have all of the answers.  As Terra comments at the beginning, “all maps lie” and it is only going off her known course – her individual map – that she is able to see the world and all of its subtle and unique beauty.

I recommend this book to fans of Dessen, as well as those who simply like to read about a character’s transformation.  There is always a lessen to be learned that we can relate back to ourselves.  And what a wonderful heroine to teach girls that beauty is more than skin deep.  

There are moments when I felt the book dragged a bit, but I stuck with it.  It has predictability, but it is the characters that drive the story and I had to find out if the relationship with the father would change in the end. Also, it is not without romance, betrayal, and redemption, which are always great elements of a teen drama.

Check out the author's blog to find out more about this book and others she is working on!

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