Outside Beauty

Book review by
Stephanie Dunnewind, Common Sense Media
Outside Beauty Book Poster Image
Golddigger mom takes daughters along for the ride.

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Kids say

age 11+
Based on 2 reviews

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Positive Messages

The girls try to run away several times. Much of the questionable social behavior is by their mother. In her narcissistic way, she trains the girls to focus on their looks to "catch" men. "My mother decided she wanted us all to be . . . sexbombs, each in her own way." Shelby says she practices manners from the heart, while to her mother, "manners were just a way of getting another bauble." The family picks up two hitchhikers. Shelby calls Maddie's father KIA (for know-it-all); he tries to impose order and rules on the girls.


Maddie's father spanks her. A new boyfriend shouts at their mother and insults her; when she tells him to leave, he says, "I won't leave until I get what I paid for." (He does eventually go.)


Shelby's mom has four daughters by four different men. She uses men to support her with gifts and money; her daughters divide them all into "minor boyfriends" and "major boyfriends" (their fathers). Their mother goes off with a car mechanic she just met, prompting Shelby's older sister to say their mom likes S-E-X.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Marilyn, 15, starts smoking when a man gives her cigarettes. She says "Good job, sweetie," when her 6-year-old sister puffs on it. Shelby makes her younger sister stop. Shelby says her mother and her boyfriends drank too much.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that the family at the center of this story is headed by a beautiful single mom who seduces men for her livelihood and tutors the girls "on everything except school." A sample motherly lesson: "Feel what you will in your heart, Shelby, but catch your men with your guile." The 13-year-old narrator understands that this is shallow, but she and her three sisters still idolize their mother. At barely 13, Shelby is put in charge of her 6-year-old sister. In their attempt to stay together as a family, the girls all run away from their fathers.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byalbertanson April 9, 2008
Teen, 13 years old Written byBetty L. April 14, 2013

Another great book by Cynthia Kadohata!

OUTSIDE BEAUTY was an awesome read! I enjoyed it thoroughly and was engaged by the writing. I am a fan of Cynthia Kadohata, and I love the way she writes! You c... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byh8rPatrol December 21, 2010

What's the story?

Thirteen-year-old Shelby is content with her unconventional home life, shared by her gorgeous mom ("our undisputed queen") and three adored sisters, Marilyn, 15, Lakey, 8, and Maddie, 6. Each of the four girls has a different father; Shelby hardly knows her dad, a Japanese gum salesman who lives in Arkansas. When their mother ends up in the hospital, the girls are sent to live with their respective fathers. Shelby is especially concerned about Maddie, whose father spanks her for wetting the bed and controls all communication with her sisters. Shelby gets to know her father but misses the sisters who "were extensions of myself." When they see a chance to stay together, they seize it, even though it means running away.

Is it any good?

Shelby is an engaging narrator, wiser and more insightful than her mother. Her voice is matter-of-fact: "Sometimes I secretly wished my mother had loved my father. Other times I wished Lakey's father were my father. And still other times I didn't think about the fathers at all." The sisterly bond between the girls is reinforced by an invented code language and many handwritten letters while they're apart. Always vaguely embarrassed by her oddly dressed dad, Shelby's growing connection with her father is touching as they both tentatively try to understand each other.

Older readers will clearly see their mother's desperation, but younger readers may miss some of the subtleties as they view Shelby's mother through her eyes. Even the accident doesn't really change their mother; her lack of epiphany is sad but realistic. The conclusion ties up rather abruptly, but grown-up readers, at least, will wonder if returning the girls to their old life is really such a happy ending.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what the author means by the title, Outside Beauty. Does she mean outer beauty, or something more? Is Shelby's mom happy with her beauty? When Shelby insists she lives in an alternate universe where beauty isn't the most important thing, her mother replies, "Ain't no such universe." Who do you think is right? Where on TV and at the movies can you find examples of people who agree with Shelby's mom?

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