Background: I worked with Justina Chen Headley when I was a Postergirl for Readergirlz. I've met her and talked with her, and I think highly of her efforts to empower teenage girls through books. As others have discussed (most recently Jackie Parker), it can be difficult to be objective in writing a review of a book when you know and like the author. But, like Jackie, I've decided that I need to make my best effort. Because just as it wouldn't be right to praise a book that I didn't like, because of who the author is, it's also not right to ignore a book that I do like. Sound reasonable? OK, then.
Review: North of Beautiful is Justina Chen Headley's third novel for young adults. It's about a teenage girl trying to find her way. Terra Cooper has a lot going for her. She has a gorgeous body, a cool boyfriend, and a genuine passion for art. She has mentors who support her, and an excellent chance of getting in to her dream college. But Terra has challenges, too. She has a large port wine stain on her face, which she's constantly trying to hide, and an overbearing father, who she's constantly trying to hide from. Her family is fractured, with Terra and her mother under the father's thumb, and her two older brothers staying as far away as they can. Things in Terra's life start to change, however, when she meets an unusual boy named Jacob, and follows up on some new opportunities.
Throughout the book, maps and charts recur as symbols. Terra's father is a mapmaker, Jacob is a geocacher, and Terra uses map-related terminology to depict her own life. For example:
"Those three hours were near enough for four years of unplanned drop-in visits -- and where Mom went, Dad was sure to hover. I'd remain cooped inside Dad's boundary lines." (Page 39, ARC)
It's fitting, in this map-related context, that the settings in the book create a strong sense of place, both in Terra's hometown in Washington State and during a trip to China. The author clearly knows, first-hand, what she's writing about. She excels at deft, creative descriptions, too. Here are a few examples:
"While I wanted to get lost in the world, I didn't want to be lost at school. I wanted to meet people who would understand how the sight of a tree's jasper green needles against a cloudless sky could make my heart go POW!" (Page 37)
"Mom's hurt swelled in the car, her feelings banged up by my one unguarded comment. Softly, she sniffled. "It's just that it feels like yesterday when you were born. You know, I always wanted a girl."" (Page 58, ARC)
"Even distraught, she was still the portrait of wealth, hair colored preternaturally blond, a red overcoat cinched tightly around her waist, and perched in high black books. You could almost smell eau de Republican wafting from her as she threw her arms around Jacob." (Page 61, ARC)
Although I enjoy reading well-written passages like these, it takes three-dimensional characters to keep me turning the pages. Terra is a fabulous character, flawed and believable. I found myself thinking about her when I wasn't reading the book. Even when I could see that she was making mistakes, I still rooted for her. Terra's mother's vulnerability positively breathes from the page. Jacob's mother's vulnerability is more subtle, but unmistakable. And Jacob, well, he's pretty much irresistible. [Fans of Justina's previous book, Girl Overboard, will be pleased to know that Syrah makes a cameo appearance, too.] In truth, I found some of the character growth throughout the book a tiny bit over the top, but I was willing to suspend belief because I liked the characters so much.
North of Beautiful is about finding your own way, taking action to get what you want, and yes, about internal vs. external beauty. I think that teenage girls will find it inspirational and moving. North of Beautiful may inspire a host of new young geocachers. But I think that, without being in the least bit preachy, it's also likely to inspire readers to feel more self-confident. And that is truly a beautiful thing.
Publisher: Little, Brown Young Readers
Publication Date: February 1, 2009
Source of Book: Advance review copy. Quotes are from the advance copy, and may differ from the final, printed book.
Other Blog Reviews: S. Krishna's Books, The Compulsive Reader, Bookshelves of Doom, Liv's Book Reviews, Mrs. F-B's Book Blog, Presenting Lenore, Kids Lit, and others
Author Interviews: Readertotz, HipWriterMama, Teen Book Review, Mitali's Fire Escape, Shelf Elf, Archimedes Forgets, Biblio File
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.