Review: North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley

Posted by Cecilia Leger on 2:46 PM

As I browsed through Borders for something to read, I was drawn to the lyricism of this title. North of Beautiful. It sounded so poetic. As I read the back cover, I became intrigued. The blurb described the story of a girl, Terra Cooper, who'd been born with a birthmark on the side of her face and who was struggling with understanding the meaning of beauty. I read a few passages from random spots in the book and liked the author's tone and writing, so I bought the book.

What I found within the pages was such a pleasure that I didn't want the experience to end. The story was complex and complete: the meaning beauty was central, of course, but so many other themes were also woven in a manner that felt effortless and natural. All of the characters were fully developed, not only in relation to Terra, but as figures of importance in their own right. The author, Justina Chen Headley, also introduces many other interesting things (art, mapmaking, geocaching, a trip to China) with enough details to educate, but not so many to overshadow the story.

As the central theme of the book, readers are swept along with the protagonist to examine the concept of beauty through its many forms: the way Terra deals with her scar; the way relationships can uplift or damage the soul; the healing power of art; the splendor of things others might find mundane. As Terra struggled with her insecurities, I found myself identifying with her as a woman and as an artist.

One of the things I most appreciated about this novel was the way Headley addressed the love interest. The love story was not an all-consuming issue for Terra; there was no "I must have him or I'll die" moment. The relationship grew from a friendship, over time, and it was a healthy, supportive one. The boy in the story, Jacob, is himself someone with a scar, with a differing understanding of beauty and with his quiet thoughtful ways, he encourages Terra to challenge her own perceptions.

Surprisingly, Justina Chen Headly, the author, has only been writing YA fiction for a few years. Her first book, Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies) won the 2007 Asian Pacific American Award for Youth Literature. Her second novel, Girl Overboard (which I'm reading now) was a Junior Library Guild Premiere Selection. North of Beautiful has earned terrific reviews from Publishers Weekly and others, and recently became a finalist for the Walden Award (ALAN). She is hard at work on her next novel, Return to Me. I can't wait!

Find out more about the author and her work at www.justinachenheadley.com. But don't forget you first heard about her here!


Hi Cecilia. Thanks for your comment on my blog :) The kitty is my 12 year old kitty Tabitha. Amazingly, she is a rescue kitty and no one else had wanted her for over 6 months. I was taken in immediately. She is curled next to my laptop as I type now. :)

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