“People assume that because I had an unconventional appearance growing up, I did not have friends. People assume that because my eyes are crooked and far apart, I am not intelligent. People assume that because I do not meet arbitrary standards of beauty, I am not a strong, beautiful woman.”
Being Defined by a Condition
Ariel Henley (Belle to her family) and her twin sister Alixandria (Zan) are born with Crouzon syndrome, a craniofacial condition where the bones in the head don’t grow. In the preface to A Face for Picasso, Henley describes her purpose in writing her memoir:
“My story is one rooted in the idea of beauty. So to write honestly about coming of age with Crouzon syndrome, I had to write about beauty through a lens of disfigurement. As a woman, I am defined by beauty; and as a woman with a facial difference, I am also defined by my very lack of the thing. This is a lesson I began learning in childhood. It’s a lesson I want to destroy.”
Wearing a Mask
In order to survive, Ariel and Zan require multiple surgeries. The medical procedures—opening up the skull, adding bones from the hips, etc.—are painful and require a lot of recovery. Though identical at birth, the surgeries cause the twins to look less and less like one another over time. As Ariel points out, she looks less and less like herself as well, a circumstance that makes her feel her identity is being stripped. Eventually, Ariel describes her face as a mask she can’t remove.
All the while, the girls suffer the rejection and outright taunts of their peers. School is a perpetual nightmare. Though the girls have friends in the neighborhood, they both desire acceptance outside of that insular world. After being denied positions on their elementary school cheerleading squad, they cheer for another school, having found openings where conventional beauty standards are not part of the evaluation.
Bullying, Taunts, and Eating Disorders
There are times in middle school when Ariel reaches her limit with being bullied and taunted. When a classmate belonging to the same breakout group cohort continually makes comments about her appearance, Ariel finally claps back, telling him it’s no wonder his father committed suicide with a son like him.
This incident made me think of how difficult middle and high school are—how many students are consistently in survival mode and desperate for acceptance. Because of Ariel’s appearance, this situation is amplified. She gets away from school when she can, choosing homeschooling when possible. Due to her self-criticism, she ends up with an eating disorder.
Where are the Adults?
The chapters on school also made me wonder about the unwise choices adults in the educational environment make. In one homecoming scene, the Panthers’ cheerleaders must be escorted by the football players. The boys are each to give their assigned girl a rose, link arms and walk together to their court position. The boy escorting Ariel gives her the rose, but refuses to link arms (to touch her). At the end, some boys on the team make fun of him for having any proximity to her at all. Others congratulate him as if he’s survived a trial by fire. Why do such traditions exist in the first place?
Worse are teachers who behave like children but have authority over the lives of the kids. Ariel’s wood shop teacher is a jerk. He has a reputation for liking the pretty girls, getting too close to them, touching their shoulders. (I wonder how this would play out in today’s environment?) He hates having Ariel and Zan in his class. He doesn’t grade Ariel’s work. As she is about to fail the class, her parents get involved. The teacher is so awful and dismissive of the girls during the parent conference that the parents have the girls removed from the class. When other students ask why the girls are no longer in class, the teacher tells them the girls’ appearance was too distracting to the other students and not conducive to their learning. Why are such people not fired?
Beauty, Difference, and the Ultimate Outsider
Henley is able to prevent her story from being inspiration porn, a thing we are inundated with daily on social media. She’s not writing to make the reader judge her as a hero or (worse) to feel ‘but for the grace of God . . ..’ Her work is a serious meditation on beauty, difference, and the effects of being the ultimate outsider.
From this meditation comes the title of the book. When Ariel and Zan are nine years old, they’re interviewed for the French edition of Marie Claire Magazine. “The article didn’t mention that Zan and I were people and not a medical condition. Then, stretched across the page, in big bold letters, I saw it: ‘Their faces resembled the work of Picasso.’”
Yet one of Ariel’s favorite teachers in middle school is her art teacher, Ms. J. She challenges students to think of beauty in new ways. She imparts an important lesson:
“Art isn’t about what you see. It’s about what you feel. I want you to show me what you feel.” (In an ironic twist, while the woodshop teacher keeps his job. Ms. J is fired for assigning too much work.)
A Face for Picasso
Her experiences lead Ariel to study Picasso and cubism as she grows up. As the reader, we learn that Picasso was a misogynist and an extremely abusive man—physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Henley draws a line between Picasso’s images of women pulled apart and put back together and the way he pulled women apart to remake them in his own image in real life.
A Face for Picasso is a memoir I couldn’t put down. Henley’s experience and insights are valuable not only for an adult audience, but for middle and high school students as well. While reading it, I kept thinking this would be a great book for a schoolwide read. The classroom discussions would be meaningful, perhaps incredible.
Middle School/High School Housekeeping
I found this book through an online writers’ group. In a comment on a post, someone mentioned to me that I would enjoy reading it. Once I started, I worried that school librarians might not hear about it. I decided to write a book review to post in multiple places hoping to connect with librarians somewhere. A few days later, the book won the Schneider Family Book Award Honor Book for Teens. I looked it up and realized it is also a 2021 Booklist Editors’ Choice and a New York Public Library Best Books of 2021. So—no worries about librarians ordering this after all. But if you are one and your school is looking for a schoolwide read, have a read yourself and consider nominating A Face for Picasso.
If you are a teen or a parent of a teen, you might not know which books win awards—and may have missed this one. Buy it. You won’t be disappointed.
Note: While the author makes a clear distinction between her nonfiction memoir and the middle-grade novel Wonder, if you want a refresher about that novel to consider the difference, I reviewed it here.