The fathers in Outside Beauty are Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Anglo-Saxon. And while the narrator Shelby makes it a point to introduce her sisters along with their racial backgrounds, these differences are completely ignored by the girls themselves. This is, in the end, not a book about a dysfunctional multiracial family--it is a book about a dysfunctional family, period.
The genius of Kadohata's subtle treatment of race is reflected in the main theme of what physical features and "outside beauty" mean to different people and how it defines us. Though Helen has taught the girls to prize their physical attributes above all else, Shelby realizes that she wants other things to be important too. She discovers that she lives in a "parallel universe" from her mother's, one where beauty doesn't matter. What is lovely about Kadohata's parallel universes is that while it is a revelation for the girls to find one where beauty doesn't matter, they already unknowingly reside in one where race doesn't matter. Their race isn't absent, it just doesn't matter.
There are few moments where race is even mentioned. During one tense moment when the four girls check into a motel late at night, unchaperoned, the manager says, "We don't get many young ladies here. Not many Orientals either." Another is when the well-meaning but somewhat tactless Italian father says to Shelby's Japanese father at one point, apropos of nothing, "I admire the Japanese." These moments come and go so quickly that they make us aware that others are aware of race, but in this universe, it matters even less than beauty does.
Outside Beauty by Cynthia Kadohata
Middle Grade Fiction