by: Amanda Dewees
When I started writing The Shadow and the Rose, the first book in my young-adult magical romance series, the Ash Grove Chronicles, I knew that physical beauty was going to be an important theme. So many teens (and I was one of them) feel the pressure to be beautiful and know that they’re being judged by their looks. It doesn’t end at adolescence, of course, but for teens the scrutiny can be especially merciless.
The story I wanted to tell inevitably ventured into this sticky territory because the 17-year-old hero, Tanner Lindsey, had to be strikingly handsome: his looks are what first attract the notice of the villainess, Melisande. Both a supermodel and a supernatural creature, Melisande is transcendently beautiful—and chooses only the most beautiful mortals for her protégé and entourage. I wanted Joy Sumner, my 16-year-old heroine, to be relatable and to have a different perspective on self-image from Tanner, so I made her cute but not beautiful by current standards. At Ash Grove High School for the Performing Arts she is surrounded by beautiful aspiring actors and dancers, and she is bombarded with the message that her appearance makes her inferior. Then, when she steps into Tanner’s world and encounters even more beautiful people, she feels intimidated:
Before she had enrolled at Ash Grove, Joy had felt at peace with her looks. She knew she was never going to be tall or slender, or a classic Snow White like her mother, so she
had resigned herself to being what she was: short, sturdily built, with generous curves. Her nose was smushed-in instead of being elfin, like Maddie’s, or elegant, like Tasha’s.
She had an abundance of freckles and a lot of springy dirty-blonde hair that tended to frizz in humid weather. . . . Being surrounded by girls who embodied the tall, willow-slim feminine ideal showcased in all the magazines was rough. And now, confronted with the cool perfection of Melisande . . . Joy had never felt quite so dumpy, awkward, and plain.
Joy’s experience here is one that probably every teen (and many an adult) is familiar with: that sense that we don’t measure up. What’s strange is that our sense of self-worth, or of others’ worth, can ride on something as meaningless as our bone structure or our height—something that, on a genetic level, is completely out of our control. Yet we can know intellectually that we are more than our outward appearance but still want the acceptance and admiration that physical beauty brings. Maybe that’s because what’s called beauty often means something more than symmetrical facial features and a certain ratio of, say, pupil distance to facial length. When we call someone beautiful, it can mean that they evoke a sense of delight and adoration in us, or that they’re special to us. For whatever reason, looking at them gives us pleasure. This is what Tanner means when he tells Joy one pivotal night that she looks beautiful. But she takes him literally, and calls him on it:
“I know I’m not beautiful, Tan. I’ve known it for a long time. So please don’t say it just to try to make me feel good.”
“I meant it.” He could see that she didn’t believe him. “I wasn’t saying you have perfectly proportioned features, or whatever. I just meant that I enjoy looking at you.” He reached out to touch one dangling earring, setting it swinging, and smiled down at her. “Okay?” he said softly.
This was an entirely new way of looking at things, and with his eyes so steady on hers she couldn’t come up with any reason to object to it. “Okay,” she said faintly.
For Tanner, Joy is beautiful because of what she means to him, not because of her looks. But not all of the characters see past Joy’s outward appearance. Sheila Hardesty, the school’s chief mean girl, tells Joy bluntly that she’s not worthy to be with Tanner because of her plain looks: “You’re not even in the same species as [him].” It’s all too common a message—that a person’s worth is determined by their physical appearance. In the upcoming third book in the series, when a quirk of magic forces Joy to meet Tanner again as if for the first time, she has internalized Sheila’s standards. Her own assumptions about appearance make her distrust Tanner’s interest in her, even when a relative tries to help her see herself differently
“Sweetheart, I know you don’t believe me, but you’re a really attractive girl. You’ll always stand out from the crowd, because you have your own kind of beauty.”
The kind that wasn’t beauty at all. “I don’t want to stand out,” she muttered. To be different was to be a failure.
“You look like you, which is better than being some mass-produced Barbie doll. The guy who loves you will love how you look because your looks are part of you.” . . .
“He hasn’t gotten to know me enough to care that much about me.” To see past my looks.
She confronts Tanner himself with her doubts:
“Look at us. No way is a guy who looks like you ever going to be interested in me.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You’re in a whole different class from me. We belong to totally different worlds.”
“But the way I look isn’t who I am,” he said, puzzled. “It’s not like goggles that I see
the world through. ‘There’s a maple tree, and I’m handsome.’”
To accept Tanner’s love, Joy has to work past her preconceptions about both her own looks and his. Tanner, on the other hand, has his own problems with self-esteem, but they arise from the opposite predicament: as a professional model, he’s been taught that his good looks are the only valuable thing about him. One of the most satisfying parts for me of writing Tanner and Joy’s romance has been bringing each character to recognize their own value and to learn that their outward appearance doesn’t determine who they really are—for good or ill. That’s difficult for many of us to remember, and I hope that experiencing Joy and Tanner’s journey will remind my
readers that we all have worth that goes far beyond our beauty… or what we may see as the lack of it. Heroism, after all, isn’t determined by our faces.
I hope readers will enjoy getting to know Joy, Tanner, and the other characters in the Ash Grove Chronicles. The Shadow and the Rose and book two in the series, Casting Shadows, are already available in e-book and paperback at major e-tailers.
Book three, Among the Shadows, is scheduled for publication this spring, and I’m excited to unveil the cover here for you today! I especially like that the cover model’s face is indistinct enough to be as beautiful—or as ordinary—as the reader imagines her to be. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
ATTENTION !!! Amanda has graciously agreed to give one lucky commenter a copy of one of her books, so be sure to leave a comment and it just might be YOU!
About the author:
Amanda DeWees is an editor and author living in Atlanta, Georgia. While pursuing her PhD at the University of Georgia she studied ghost stories and vampire literature, which was a great preparation for writing her popular gothic romance, Sea of Secrets. A lover of comedy, she tries to sneak humor into all of her writing, no matter what genre she’s working in. In her next life she plans to be a film director. And beautiful.
Please visit Amanda’s website to see her other books and what’s coming soon.