There's only one way Shelby and her sisters can describe their mother: she's a sexpot. She collects men (and loans, spending money, and gifts of all kinds) from all over the country. Sure, she's atypical, but she's also more than a pretty face and nail polish -- she's confident and brave and lives lifeon her own terms. And her daughters adore her, and work together to keep the family grounded in a way their mother can't.
Then a late-night car crash shatters everything, including their mother's arm and face. Suddenly, the family is scattered across the country, each girl being sent to live with her respective father. While Helen undergoes surgery and post-surgery, the sisters try to adjust to a life without each other. The trouble is, they're NOT adjusting, and the youngest, Maddie, is so terrified of her father that she's withdrawing...from her sisters, and from herself. That's when Shelby realizes something must be done -- something drastic -- to reclaim her family. At turns wickedly funny and unflinchingly haunting, Outside Beauty showcases Cynthia Kadohata's unerring ability to explore the bonds that bind.
Discussion Questions 1) Exploring the bonds that bind a family is one of the major themes of the story. What are some of the expressions of closeness that the sisters display? 2) What are some of the characteristics the sisters share? What are some of their differences? 3) What adjectives would you use to describe Shelby? Marilyn? Lakey? Maddie? Helen? 4) The impact of Helen's behavior on the sisters is complex. How does her attitude toward men shape the sisters' attitudes? How does her use of her beauty affect them? 5) How do the sisters view their mom's beauty? How do they reflect her values? 6) In many families the siblings take care of one another. Describe the relationship of Shelby and Maddie before they go to live with their fathers and then while they are separated. 7) How do the fathers relate to Helen now that they are no longer with her? How do they relate to their daughters? How do they relate to one another? 8) The discussion of marriage comes up many times in the story. How has their mother's desire not to marry affected the sisters? 9) Helen and the fathers are described as outsiders. Helen found each man through their shared loneliness. Have the sisters also become outsiders? Can they change? 10) Which sister is the most rebellious? Who is the most compliant? Who is the most motherly? Give examples that support your choices. 11) We learn both from our parents and from our surroundings. Do these characters reflect both? Give examples of what the sisters have learned from their parents. Now give examples of things they have learned from their surroundings. List some of the things the sisters have experienced because of their unusual lifestyle. 12) The isolation that the sisters felt when they were sent to their fathers' houses was both geographic and personal. With the technology available today, including cell phones, camera phones, and Internet with social network sites, how might the girls' situation be altered? 13) How did the powwow process help the sisters communicate? Did this always work for them? 14) How does each sister view her mother? Her father? Herself? 15) What personality characteristics do the girls share with their fathers? How were Mack and Marilyn similar? Lakey and Larry? Shelby and Jiro? Maddie and Mr. Bronson? 16) What character has changed the most in this story? Has any character remained unchanged? Research and Activities 1) Did you understand the special language, thetheguh, that the sisters speak (page 25)? Try writing a sentence using their special language. Have you ever made up your own language? Try making one up. 2) Diagram on paper the complex family tree of Shelby and her sisters. Include Helen, with all of the fathers, sisters, and any other brothers and sisters and spouses. How does this compare to a traditional family tree? 3) Get a map of the United States and map the places mentioned in the story as the girls travel with their mom, when they are with their dads, and when they run away. Where do they end up? 4) Each of the girls has a distinct look they feel helps define them. Using magazines, can you find pictures that you think show characteristics of a Japanese-Italian girl? A full Japanese girl? A Japanese-Anglo? Put these pictures together to create their family. How significant is physical appearance in the bond of families?
Cynthia Kadohata is the author of the Newbery Medal–winning book Kira-Kira, the National Book Award winner The Thing About Luck, the Jane Addams Peace Award and PEN America Award winner Weedflower, Cracker!, Outside Beauty, A Million Shades of Gray, Half a World Away, Place to Belong, and several critically acclaimed adult novels, including The Floating World. She lives with her dog and hockey-playing son in Los Angeles, California. Visit her online at CynthiaKadohata.com.