Book Review: Outside Beauty by Cynthia Kadohata

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outsidebeauty.jpgIn Cynthia Kadohata's newest book, Outside Beauty, 13-year-old Shelby and her three sisters struggle with some pretty big concepts of family, beauty, and strength of character. The four sisters each have a different father, but are kept together as a loving family by their strong-willed mother Helen, whose philosophy in life is to use her beauty to gain any advantage possible. The girls quickly learn to deal with their mother's many suitors, constant moving to avoid one or another of them, and their estranged relationships with their own fathers. What makes the book particularly intriguing to me is that Helen is Japanese-American, while each of the girls' fathers is of a different race.

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


I was also struck by how race didn't matter. “Outside Beauty” is also another example of a next gen Asian-American author pushing the envelope beyond the expected. The fact that Shelby and her sisters are biracial is not central to the narrative (or the marketing). Their ethnicity is a part of them, but not the defining quality of their conflicts or characters.

Here's my interview with Cynthia Kadohata.

How did I miss this one? I loved Weedflower, and the cover of this one is great. I will request it right away from the library! Thanks!

This sounds fascinating! I shall seek it out.

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Renee Ting is the President and Publisher of Shen's Books. She is the author of The Prince's Diary and the blog, Renee's Book of the Day.

Emily Jiang is a writer of children's and YA literature. She also blogs at TLeaf Readings.

Shen’s Books is a publisher of multicultural children’s literature that emphasizes cultural diversity and tolerance, with a focus on introducing children to the cultures of Asia.

Through books, we can share a world a stories, building greater understanding and tolerance within our increasingly diverse communities as well as throughout our continuously shrinking globe.


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