North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley. (Grades 8+)
At first glance, high school senior Terra might seem to have the perfect life. She's tall and blonde, has a studly boyfriend, excels in school and is graduating early, has a part-time job at a local art gallery. But underneath the makeup and the fake smile, Terra's life is much different. She's always defined herself by the port-wine stain on her cheek and by her father's verbally abusive criticisms. Her two older brothers left as soon as they were able and Terra watches her mother's weight balloon as her father berates her more and more. She's intent on leaving her small town for a college across the country and then a successful career that will allow her to travel and escape her father's critical eye.
But when Terra serendipitously meets Jacob, an Asian-American goth boy with a penchant for good coffee, the compass guiding her life plan begins to slowly tilt. She will finally learn what it's like to be loved for who she is and maybe she'll begin to find her own way.
Justina Chen Headley pulled me into Terra's world with great characters and lots of interesting details. Terra felt very real to me - I got angry when her father berated her and I felt unspeakable sadness when Terra's timid, plump mother apologized for her own existence yet again. Terra and her mom take a great journey together - all the way to China to visit Terra's brother. The descriptions of Shanghai and Beijing (as well as Terra's small town in northern Washington state) made me feel like I was traveling with them every step of the way.
I love all the details that make the story so rich, too. Jacob is really into geocaching (kind of like treasure hunting with a GPS) and he shares his passion with Terra. Jacob's mom Norah is a coffee buyer and travels all over the world searching for great coffee beans. Terra's an artist, collecting materials from everywhere to add to her collages. All these great details really flesh out the story and make it just as rich as Norah's perfect cup of coffee.
Terra undergoes changes throughout the course of the novel. She's not perfect and she makes mistakes. I loved the slowly blossoming romance between Terra and Jacob and I loved the slowly blossoming friendship between Terra's mom and Jacob's mom. I thought the ending was just right - everything gets wrapped up, but not too quickly or too neatly.
I'd recommend North of Beautiful to fans of Sarah Dessen and Carolyn Mackler. It's a great story about the meaning of beauty and one girl learning to forge her own path. And even though it's a book about maps and directions and GPS systems, it's definitely a book you can get lost in. ;)
Check out Justina Chen Headley's website and my review of Girl Overboard (which was a 2008 Cybils nominee). Read more reviews of North of Beautiful at Teen Book Review, Oops...Wrong Cookie, Mitali's Fire Escape, Simply Books, and Shelf Elf.
North of Beautiful is out on February 1.