Outside Beauty

Kadohata, Cynthia


Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York. 2008. 265 p.

For a long time I never touched YA books. In school I had basically gone from juvenile to adult reading, and YA just got lost in the mix. Even working in the library wasn’t enough to make me want to read a YA book. I knew friends and colleagues who did, but it just didn’t interest me. I thought of YA as mostly chick lit filled with flirty romances and superficial issues. Well, I’ve proven myself wrong yet again with the latest book I’ve read, Outside Beauty by Cynthia Kadohata. A lot of the books I’ve covered in this blog have been YA and I’m happy to say that. YA may have been only about teen romance and melodrama in the past, but it seems the new YA book being produced really deal with deeper issues that even adult readers can relate to.

Outside Beauty mainly tackles the issue of; guess what, beauty, in all of its forms. But it also deals with race, sexuality, and family in a very delicate and touching way. Our main character is Shelby, a twelve year old who has three other sisters: Maddie, who’s six; Lakey, who’s eight; and Marilyn, who’s fifteen. The catch here is, they all have different fathers. Their mother, Helen, is a beautiful Japanese woman who collects men the way young girls collect stickers or dolls. She is stunning and she knows it, and she can never stay in one relationship too long. All the girls live with their mother in an apartment in Chicago and get along incredibly well considering their diverse origins. Though the girls’ fathers are very different, once we meet them all we see why Helen fell in love, except for Maddie’s father, Mr. Bronson, who is a severe and rigid man, who does eventually prove to be human after all near the end of the novel.

The book opens in the summer of 1983 with Helen and her daughters running away from yet another man who has become too love sick for Helen’s taste. The ladies are off to visit Lakey’s father, Larry, who to me seems like the sweetest and most likable of all the fathers. He also seems to be the one Helen may still love. He obviously still has feelings for her, too, but he understandably wants Helen to settle down with him in California, something she may never be capable of doing with her personality. The girls are happy to be on another adventure with their mother, but really, their mother is always running from her problems rather than facing them, and that is her biggest issue throughout the book.

Things get complicated when Maddie’s aggressive and somewhat vindictive father Mr. Bronson starts threatening Helen for custody of Maddie. Helen doesn’t tell the girls too much of what’s going on, but it’s obvious this is a man with authority and money, and he may be able to beat Helen in this battle. Helen believes she can stay one step ahead of Mr. Bronson until she is involved in an unexpected (to the reader) accident and the lives of her four girls screech to a devastating halt.

Of the four girls, Shelby does seem like the best choice for the narrator, though Lakey seems like she would be a character I’d like to have learned more about. We get to know Marilyn and Maddie pretty well, but Lakey sometimes fades into the background. Shelby describes herself as quiet and shy, and she is. But the real reason she is the best narrator is because she is the one daughter who really sees that there is more to life and a person than outside beauty. Shelby is not the most glamorous or pretty of the girls, and this enables her to see the bigger picture and dream of a life without being judged by looks. It’s a world her mother and her sisters cannot imagine, but Shelby longs for. It seems by the end of the book that some of the characters have remained the same, but we have watched Shelby mature into an intelligent and pensive young girl who truly knows and understands herself, and probably the people around her better than they know themselves.