Discussing North of Beautiful by Justina Chen
Recently the moms and 15-year-old girls in my mother-daughter book club gathered together at my home to talk about North of Beautiful by Justina Chen. My daughter Catherine and I had recommended it to our group, and we were glad we set aside a lot of time to talk about this book. Discussion went on for a full hour, and even though we had to close the meeting because it was getting late and homework beckoned the girls, we could have gone on even longer.
North of Beautiful provides a great way for moms and their daughters to have a discussion about beauty in our society—the things we do to achieve it, how we work to hide our imperfections, ways we judge others based on their looks.
In the book, the main character, Terra Cooper, has a port-wine stain birthmark covering part of her face. All her life her parents have taken her for treatments to lessen the effects of it. Terra is an expert at using heavy cover up.
I started the discussion by asking everyone to talk about their own perceived imperfections and how they try to hide them from others. One of my ears is larger than the other, something I’ve always taken pains to hide with the kind of haircut I choose. One mom said her sister had serious disabilities, so she didn’t feel she could afford the luxury of worrying about small imperfections. One of the girls worried about a mole on her face. Talking about these things made us all realize how our own imperfections appear larger in our minds than they do to those around us.
In the book Terra has a boyfriend. She feels he doesn’t really get who she is, but she also feels like she’s lucky to have him because of her birthmark. She does things with her boyfriend she doesn’t really want to do, but she’s afraid to tell him how she really feels.
This was a hot topic, and one I’m glad I was able to talk about with my daughter and her friends. The moms mostly let the girls talk, and we were happy to hear them say they believed Terra needed to be true to herself, and she should realize that when someone pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, they don’t really care about you for who you are. I hope they can take that conviction to heart throughout their own lives.
Other topics we talked about in this rich book:
Dealing with verbal abuse—Terra’s dad belittles her mom, and she cooks and overeats to feel better. Consequently, she is overweight. We recognized that Terra’s mom had to feel better about herself before she could stand up to her husband. We also talked about the tendency not to label hurtful words as abuse.
Facing problems head on—Both Terra and her mom spend a lot of time avoiding conflict. But conflict doesn’t go away; it just builds into more conflict. We talked about how hard it can be to face your problems, but in the long run it’s better than putting them off.
Making judgments based on appearances—Jacob is a Goth Asian boy Terra comes to know. We discussed how people create opinions of you based on your looks when they don’t know you. One of the moms said that’s not all bad, because some people who look scary really should be avoided. But when we can get to know someone we should try to see past the exterior they project to see what they are truly like.
The sport of geocaching is also featured in North of Beautiful. If I had thought of it in advance, I would have researched a nearby cache that our group could go out and find. Even better, we could have created our own cache to hide. I’ve been geocaching with my own family, and I think this would be a fun way to extend the reading and discover something new.
North of Beautiful is classified as a teen read, but it’s written well enough for adults to enjoy even if they don’t have teen daughters to talk about it with. I expect the issues we discussed will stay with all of us for quite some time.
For more info, read my review and an interview with Chen.