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Big Mouth & Ugly Girl


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About the Author

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and has been several times nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and the New York Times bestseller The Falls, which won the 2005 Prix Femina. Her most recent novel is A Book of American Martyrs. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.


Believable, full-blooded characters propel Oates's first YA novel past some plotting that doesn't quite add up. Ursula Riggs, a high school junior, has adopted a stance of invincible indifference ("Since that day I woke up and knew I wasn't an ugly girl, I was Ugly Girl"). Against her mother's wishes, she leaps to her classmate Matt Donaghy's defense when his throwaway joke about blowing up the school makes him a suspected terrorist, but then rebuffs Matt's overtures to friendship. Told in alternating perspectives (Ursula's in first-person and Matt's in third), the novel intensifies even though Matt is quickly exonerated. Matt's friends ice him out, citing pressure from their parents, and his family receives hate mail. When Matt's family files suit against the school and his accusers, the hostilities escalate, and Matt nearly attempts suicide (Ursula, again in the right place at the right time, saves him once more). In turn, Matt helps Ursula realize that her Ugly Girl persona "wasn't right for all occasions." The weak spots here have to do with the villains (including the students who reported Matt's "joke" and those who bully him); they are barely developed, and stereotypes seem to have taken the place of their motivation. But the relationship between Ursula and Matt grows, credibly and compellingly, against a convincing high school backdrop. Readers will relate to the pressures these two experience, both at school and from their parents, and be gratified by their ability to emerge the wiser. Ages 13-up. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Gr 8 Up-While horsing around in the high school cafeteria, Matt Donaghy makes some remarks that land him in a world of trouble. Yanked out of fifth-period study hall by plainclothes policemen, he learns that he's suspected of plotting to bomb the school. In this day and age that's no joking matter. His friends are advised by their parents not to get involved, lest they fall under suspicion themselves. Only the resolutely individualistic, somewhat frightening Ursula Riggs, a girl he barely knows, is willing to speak up on Matt's behalf. With a combination of clear-sightedness and bravado she gets the principal to rethink Matt's suspension-and that's just the beginning of Oates's novel. The next three-quarters of the book become even more interesting, as the author explores the subsequent social pressures placed on the teenagers and adults in a fictitious, affluent suburb of New York City. Oates has a good ear for the speech, the family relations, the e-mail messaging, the rumor mills, and the easy cruelties waiting just beneath the veneer of civility. Matt's character and especially the heroic Ursula's are depicted with a raw honesty. Readers will be propelled through these pages by an intense curiosity to learn how events will play out. Oates has written a fast-moving, timely, compelling story.-Miriam Lang Budin, Chappaqua Public Library, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

"Believable, full-blooded characters. Convincing high-school back-drop."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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