Staff Picks: Things Jolie Needs to Do Before She Bites It by Kerry Winfrey
Jolie is finally about to have the surgery that she’s been waiting for her whole life: the one that will fix her underbite, thus ridding her of chronic headaches, jaw pain, trouble eating and speaking (not to mention making her look normal). But after watching way too much worst-case scenario reality TV, Jolie becomes obsessed with the possibility that she could die on the operating table. With the help of her best-friends Derek and Evelyn, Jolie creates a bucket list and races to finish it before the big day.
Although jaw surgery may seem like a rather specific subject, the plot of this novel is certainly not one-note. Jolie is also grappling with her older sister’s unplanned pregnancy, and is struggling to be there for her while she pushes Jolie away. And Jolie’s friends are not without problems: Evelyn is struggling in school and dealing with the reality that she may not get into college to pursue her fashion design dream, while Derek is still reeling from his father’s death four years prior.
Meanwhile, Jolie finds herself caught up in a school musical while trying not to acknowledge the spark she feels between herself and Derek —a spark that could ruin their friendship. The best-friends-turned-crush isn’t the most original YA plotline, but the charm of the rest of the novel was enough to make me forgive this cliché. There is a lot going on in Things Jolie Needs to do Before She Bites It, but Winfrey seamlessly weaves these storylines together. Winfrey excels at balancing light-hearted humor with a serious subject.
Kerry Winfrey presents a cast of fleshed-out characters that feel authentic. Jolie’s two best friends have quirks, passions, and flaws that bring nuances to the book without overpowering Jolie’s story. Winfrey presents characters of color, fat characters, and queer characters, for whom these identities are just parts of their lives and are not treated as problems they must overcome. Jolie herself is an incredibly relatable and believable character. She longs to be rid of the health problems caused by her underbite, but she’s also a teen who desperately wants to be pretty. Throughout the book, Jolie struggles with what it means for her that she wants to change her appearance: is she shallow? Self-absorbed? Is she conforming to society’s expectations? The novel addresses self-worth, confidence, body-image, feminism, and agency. Jolie questions whether she is making the right decision for the wrong reasons, and Winfrey answers with a thoughtful discussion on the ability to make choices for one’s own body and the empowerment that comes with those choices.
While underbites and jaw surgery are perhaps not common problems, readers of all backgrounds will relate to Jolie’s fears, doubts, and her quest to love herself on her own terms. Through the support of her friends and family, Jolie works to understand that getting surgery can improve her health and well-being, but that it won’t “fix” her, because she was never broken. Jolie’s story will strike a cord with anyone who has ever felt different, and she’ll resonate especially with teens who are still trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be.
Tags: young adult, realistic fiction, ari n,