Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mock Printz 2010: North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley

Title: North of Beautiful
Author: Justina Chen Headley
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 9780316025058
Starred reviews in: Booklist

Terra Cooper, 16, is a high school senior and artist ready to graduate and hoping to study art in a college far away from a home ruled by her sarcastic and cruel cartographer father. Terra’s older brothers have escaped Mr. Cooper’s verbal abuse while Terra, and especially her mother, Lois, suffer it daily. For Terra, his jabs focus on the port-wine stain on Terra’s face and her art-- her collages. Terra covers her face in layers of make-up, covers her insecurities and fears behind a strong fa├žade, an unfulfilling relationship and a work out regime that keeps her body in top shape. She reveals inner turmoil and hidden parts of herself in the layers and pieces that make up her collages. A near fatal accident and these browbeaten Cooper women’s fates collide with that of Jacob, an Asian-American teen who was abandoned in China because of a cleft-lip and Jacob's strong, business minded and kind-hearted adoptive mother, Norah. While Norah and Jacob have their own family crisis to deal with, they bond quickly with Terra and Lois, offering support and friendship, and in the case of Terra and Jacob, something more. Save a lie through omission (Terra's couple status), Terra and Jacob see each other for who they are, not looking past their scars and stains but appreciating them as part of the package. Together with their mothers, they travel outside of their comfort zones and to China. They work through emotional landmines, push past barriers, face fears and discover the true meaning of beauty.


Headley’s tale of self-acceptance and personal growth is entirely engaging and wonderfully written. Every character, from Terra to her over-worked and distanced eldest brother Merc, is well-crafted and believable. Like it’s protagonist, North of Beautiful is richly layered and Headley manages to piece together a strong, satisfying read. Her description of China comes alive as a character in its own right. The mapping metaphors fit seamlessly and enhance rather than distract from the story. Readers root for Terra and Lois and their journey from under Mr. Cooper’s thumb and the insecurities drilled into them there. With these women, the readers are reminded of the different ways beauty manifests itself and that appreciating these incarnations (a kindness, a smile, self-acceptance, uniqueness, true understanding), is just another form of beauty.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Mock Printz 2010: Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith

Title: Flygirl
Author: Sherri L. Smith
Publisher: Putnam
ISBN: 978-0-399-24709-5
Starred review in: Booklist, Jan 15, 2009
Ida Mae Jones is a light-skinned African-American who lives on a strawberry farm in 1940's Louisiana. Her life would have been predictable except for her Dad, who before he dies, teaches her to fly a plane and dust the crops. This strong fascination with flying gives her an opportunity when the war breaks out. Her younger brother finds a recruitment ad for the WASP, a non-military group of women being formed to act in an auxiliary capacity for the army. Ida Mae dresses up in borrowed clothing and sneaks off on an interview. Not knowing she is black, they accept her into the program. Her adventures in the WASP about her and her colleagues, coming from all different backgrounds, have one thing in common, patriotism and an ambition to fly. It tells about their training with men who don't think women can do this. And even when they can, they make it difficult or make fun of them. I especially loved the story of one poor woman who fell out of the plane because she forgot to use her seatbelt. Then there is the story of Ida Mae who is told to keep her mouth closed or else it will fill with insects. The stories about flying back then are so interesting. The stories about the racial tensions astounded me. When her mother comes to the camp unexpectedly, she needs to say and act as if she is her maid. When Ida Mae finds herself involved emotionally with a white male instructor, things get dicy. Even her escapades into town and off the base get very hairy in segregated Texas. This book is so much fun and yet quite serious. I enjoyed the characters, such clearly delineated characters, and I enjoyed the stories of the early days of flying. Their fight to be able to fly and the added layer of racism is not easily forgotten. I got so interested in this book that I personally went and researched the WASP. In the end of the book, when the two girls fly the B-29, it was so suspenseful. I later read that that particular story was true. The army did that exercise simply to embarrass the men into flying the B-29. This book was one of the most interesting historical fiction for teens that I have read. By the way, as far as we know, there was no African-American who did fly as part of the WASP . However, Ida Mae is encouraged by a Chinese woman in the book and in reality, there were two Chinese women and one rumored Latina. One of the Chinese women was killed while flying. Sherri Smith deserves a round of applause for writing this story.
Susan Rappaport, Rutherford Public Library