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North of Beautiful

May 2, 2011

North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headly

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; 1 edition (February 1, 2009)

Summary: Terra Rose Cooper has a lot going for her. She is smart, gaduating from high school a year early, artistic, the creator of intriguing collages, and attractive, tall and thin with long blond hair. However, she strives to hide two huge flaws in both her appearance and her life. Underneath layers of makeup, Terra hides a large reddish port-wine stain birthmark on her face. Underneath her obsessive control of her life, eating perfectly, staying in perfect shape, helping keep a perfect house, Terra hides years of verbal abuse inflicted on her entire family by her controlling father.

In a chance encounter, Terra meets Jacob, an adopted Chinese-American boy with his own scars and a wildly different approach to life. Terra begins to learn that there is a different way to look at life and beauty, inner and outer. Will Jacob, his mother, and a trip to China turn Terra’s world upside down?

The Good: I loved this book! I really, really did! I also have to add, my students who have read this book had the same reaction. Every single girl I have spoken with who read this book has given it rave reviews. The reader learns early on in the book that Terra’s father is obnoxious and that Terra has listened to his rants, directed at her and her family, for her entire life. However, in Terra, the reader sees a strong protagonist, who has made a plan to escape her father’s control. She just has to figure out if she truly wants to follow the route she has mapped for herself.

As a side note, I was intrigued by the side story of Terra’s mother. While Terra has learned to deal with her father’s controlling abuse by exercising compulsively and maintaining outward perfection, her mother has dealt with his abuse by overeating and has become overweight. Rather than stand up to her husband she has become overly passive in all aspects of her life. As the story unfolds, we see that she, like her daughter, is intensely creative. It is just as fulfilling to watch her character develop as it is to see the changes in Terra.

The Bad: In terms of reviewing this book for a middle school audience, it is important to note that Terra is a high school junior. She is not squeaky clean and there are a couple of implications of underage drinking and a few references to sexual behavior. However, all such references are brief and the writer does not go into detail. These behaviors are not, in any way, glorified. There are a couple of scenes which seem intended for a more mature audience, but given the context, they are not, in my opinion, inappropriate. *Side note to parents: If you get some weird questions from younger readers, please, please take the time to talk with them about the context! Don’t write off the book because of a few scenes. For every questionable scene in this book, there is a good background reason. This may be a good “read it together and talk about it book” for younger readers.

The Ugly: Terra’s dad is simply put, a jerk. There is no way around saying this. He belittles her mother for her weight and he insults his daughter’s appearance. His tirades are disturbing and may be bothersome to the reader. The good thing about Terra’s father is that he is consistent. You always know what you are going to get. He is always going to insult his wife’s weight and he is always going to insult his daughter’s appearance. Also, his tirades are contained. Through out the entire book, there are three instances where Terra’s dad goes on a tirade. Each lasts for 3-5 pages. At least Mr. Cooper’s bad behavior does not color the entire book.

The Awesome: I love the message this book sends: Terra uses her inner strength to overcome the adversity in her life. Terra seems to come by this strength naturally, but we also see her mother developing her own strength as the book progresses. I think this is an awesome book to remind girls to that inner strength is more important than outer perfection.

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