Book Spotlight: Outside Beauty – Cynthia Kadohata

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In Outside Beauty, Shelby and her three sisters struggle to reunite after being sent to live with their respective fathers in the wake of their mother’s accident.

What I liked:

  • Kadohata does an amazing job of capturing the thoughts and feelings of children and tweens. Contemporary MG and YA tend to be the most difficult books for me to get through, since I often get bored before I can finish reading, but in this case, Shelby’s voice and perspective were so entertaining and relatable, I was at the last chapter before I knew it. I am not much like Shelby as a person, but reading from her perspective sent me straight back to my elementary and middle school days. Although I was mostly into fantasy back then, I wonder if I would have enjoyed this book regardless, or if I would not have been able to see past the absence of dragons and flashy magic.
  • Jiro was such an interesting character to read. I almost felt like I could picture him more clearly than Shelby, probably because she spends so much time focused on him. I’m not sure how I feel about this contrast…on one hand, it demonstrates how effectively Kadohata situates her reader inside the narrative, but on the other, by the end of the book I still had very little of an external image of Shelby because I had spent the entire story inside her head. That said, I’m not sure Kadohata really intended the reader to have an external image of Shelby, so maybe my reading experience went exactly as planned.
  • To continue on the topic of Jiro…did fellow JA/Nikkei readers literally hear his accent every time they read his dialogue? The words, the small snatches of Japanese interspersed with English, the pauses and omissions in his speech…all of it was true to my experiences of hearing 日本人 speak English. Also, Shelby’s slowly evolving perception of Jiro, from feeling awkward about his ‘otherness’ to gradually understanding more of how and why he is who he is, felt extremely relatable to me as someone with an ever-changing understanding of my various family members’ relationships to Japanese-ness. I’m not sure I would have caught this particular nuance if I had read the book in middle school because I was definitely not thinking so critically about Japanese things as I am now. I wonder how different my experience of reading the book would have been back then – one thing I’ve been thinking about as I read my way through my backlog of JA/Nikkei children’s literature is, to what extent is all of the background knowledge I currently have obscuring my reading of the text? Of course, every reader brings a body of knowledge to what they read, but I’ve been wondering lately if it is possible to ‘overthink’ or ‘overanalyze’ certain works, in the sense that the author might go, ‘chill out and just enjoy, I wanted you to take a break by reading this!’ I realize assigning too much value to authorial intent can be limiting in and of itself, but as far as JA/Nikkei works, I like to at least acknowledge the presence of said intent because I think, for many of us, being Japanese creators means working with intent, to make the best thing you can, to evoke a particular response or range of responses from your target audience. Ehh…trying to explain this in English is not going well. For any fellow Japanese people reading this, I suppose you either get it or you don’t! Let’s move on…

What I learned:

  • Japanese gum manufacturers? In Arkansas? Is that a thing? I have thus far failed to complete my follow-up from Kira-Kira, which was to look into the history of Japanese communities in the southern US. Something tells me this will still be on my TBR the next time I come across this topic in Nikkei fiction, but at some point having to repeatedly acknowledge this particular failure on this blog will goad me into actually looking up the information, so there is that. I’m just glad none of my relatives in Japan have the time or interest in reading this blog, since, as I’m sure some of my fellow JA/Nikkei know, being a failure in Nikkei spaces is one thing, but being a failure as 日系人 in 日本人 spaces is quite another (and in my experience, somewhat worse than the first).

Questions I had:

  • Have any indigenous/Native readers ever approached Kadohata about her use of “powwow” in this book? Since it was published some time ago, I’m not sure if new editions are still being printed, but if so, I think this particular word choice should be updated to something that is not anti-indigenous. (I’m also still curious about indigenous/Native reader responses to Weedflower, but I have not found any verified ownvoices reviews so far. My original post on Weedflower can be read here.)

Follow-up:

  • I actually meant to read The Thing About Luck before I read this book, but clearly that didn’t happen. June will be full of move-related things, so I’m not sure when I’ll next read anything for Book Spotlight…hopefully soon, though!