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Girl Overboard: Justina Chen Headley

Book: Girl Overboard
Author: Justina Chen Headley (co-founder of readergirlz)
Pages: 352
Age Range: 13 and up

Girl Overboard (due out in January) is the newest book by Justina Chen Headley (after the highly-regarded Nothing But the Truth, and a few white lies). Girl Overboard is the story of Syrah, Chinese-American daughter of a billionaire, in recovery from both a snowboarding accident and a broken heart and trying to figure out her true strengths.

I must admit that I had a little trouble identifying with Syrah at first. Let's see... she's the daughter of a billionaire, she's Chinese, and she's a snowboarder and budding graphic novelist. I am ... none of those things. It's a tough thing for a writer to make a girl who has everything, at least financially, sympathetic. However, the author begins early by making it clear in the very first chapter that, despite her glamorous life, Syrah is at heart an introvert:

"As though I don't hear the doorbell ringing, Bao-mu tells me, "Guest here already." Sighing impatiently, she takes matters into her own hands, and plucks the journal out of mine. "Why you have draw now?"

"I just had to prepare," I tell her honestly. Three hours of smiling and small-talking wipes me out more than a day riding the mountain." (Chapter 1)

From there forward, we see Syrah's multi-dimensional personality, her insecurities and the family dysfunction that made her who she is. Eventually she stops feeling sorry for herself, and starts taking action. And then she's an inspiration.

Just as Syrah is multi-dimensional, there's also a lot going on theme-wise in this book: family dynamics (busy parents with high expectations, bitter half-siblings, and long-list relatives); cultural conflicts, self-identity in the presence of a powerful family; friendship (including the challenges of friendship in the presence of a crush); self-image in regards to boys; self-image in regards to body type; philanthropy (fighting cancer, promoting the need for Asian bone marrow donors); business, journalism, and marketing; and artistic and athletic inclinations. The author deftly juggles these threads, and keeps the book cohesive through Syrah's tight, first person perspective.

Here are some examples of Syrah's wryly humorous voice

"Even though I guzzle my glass of water, that sharp piece of irony remains lodged inside my throat." (Chapter 12)

"Grace breathes in. Her black eyes go so cold, I swear I feel cold frosting my entire body.
"Some of us have to work. Besides," she says, delivering the ultimate coup de Grace, "Syrah's not my problem." "(Chapter 12)

"Middle-aged men in tuxedos and women in black cocktail dresses swarm the Spanish Ballroom in the Fairmont Olympic like well-coiffed socially conscious ants." (Chapter 18)

We can see that she may have a future as a satirical cartoonist, if the whole snowboarding thing doesn't work out. In the meantime, she's a joy to spend time with.

At it's core, despite the many threads, I think that what this book is really about is encapsulated in this quote from Chapter 18:

"The once and forever champion of the my-husband-is-more-powerful-than-yours competition leads everyone into the ballroom for dinner, burning more brightly than all the candles on the gold-draped tables. As I follow Mama's ego-bruised competitors, I know I don't want to be a woman who derives her self-importance from her man. Or her father. However amazing these men are, I want to be amazing too."

Justina Chen Headley, through Syrah, is showing teenage girls that they have a right to define themselves on their own strengths and to be amazing on their own terms. This message, delivered with a fast-paced and complex plot, multi-dimensional characters, and a humorous yet sympathetic tone, is a sure winner. 

Publisher: Little, Brown
Publication Date: January 2008
Source of Book: A review copy from the author. Please note that any quotes above may differ from the final version of the book.
Author Interviews: HipWriterMama, Big A little a, Finding Wonderland, Veronika Asks

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.