The Barnes & Noble Review
Ever make a stupid comment or joke, or say something you obviously didn't mean? Of course you have -- we all have. Was it ever taken out of context? Written in the wake of some highly publicized school shootings, Big Mouth & Ugly Girl takes a look at the shock waves that emanate from an overheard comment muttered in sarcasm, and the overzealous reaction of the school and surrounding community that follows.
High school junior Matt Donaghy is considered an okay guy. He gets good grades, writes for the school paper, is in the Drama Club, and is known for his witty, if immature, humor. Students and teachers seem to like him. But one day he says something that makes a few classmates think he's out to bomb the school. The school principal is notified, the police are called in, and rumors are abuzz. Even his buddies doubt his innocence, and none of the guys come forward in his defense. There is, however, someone else who overheard Matt's statement and understood his mocking intent. School renegade Ursula Riggs, or "Ugly Girl" as she refers to herself, doesn't know Matt very well but reveals what she heard and the context in which it was said -- even though her parents instruct her to mind her own business. But even if Ursula can help Matt clear up this misunderstanding, will life at Rocky River High School ever be the same again?
In her first novel for young adults, acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates delivers a striking story about friendship, family, community, support, betrayal, and self-confidence. This powerful novel makes us think carefully about what we say, to whom we say it, and what we mean. After closing this book, you'll ask yourself the same question I did: What if I'd said such a thing? (Michele D. Thomas)
A high school junior leaps to her classmate's defense when his throwaway joke about blowing up the school makes him a suspected terrorist. "The relationship between the two grows credibly and compellingly, against a convincing high school backdrop," said PW in a starred review. Ages 12-up. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Ugly Girl Ursula Riggs has always been her own person, a loner who places perfectionist demands on herself. Matt Donaghy, or Big Mouth, has always been one of the popular, accepted kids until someone misinterprets his joking about a bomb and reports him to the administration. As the police lead him away, Big Mouth enters an isolation chamber built by rumors, prejudices, and false accusations. Only Ugly Girl can ignore the consequences and do what she believes is right. Ursula's statement clears Matt of all charges, and he returns to school thinking that life will return to normal. Suddenly, everyone is suspicious, and even old friends shun him. Through their shared experience, Matt and Ursula start a somewhat rocky friendship. Had this book not been assigned for review, this reviewer would have stopped after about fifty pages. There is just too much stuff and too little action. Half way through the book, however, readers will be hooked by these two gutsy teens. Oates delivers some realistic perceptions of the unforgiving adolescent world. Teen readers might prove unforgiving of the book, but both teen and adult readers will be glad if they hang in there even when the reading becomes slow-paced. PLB Bott <%ISBN%>0066237564
Loner Ursula Riggs has built an impenetrable persona for herself—warrior woman, alias Ugly Girl. Classmate Matt Donaghy has a big mouth, solely intended for entertaining his friends—until it gets him falsely accused of wanting to blow up his high school. When Ursula drags herself out of her shell to defend Matt, a friendship develops, with Matt writing numerous e-mails to her, always deleting the ones that reveal his truest feelings. In her first novel for young adults, prominent author Joyce Carol Oates raises provocative questions about the damage done to innocent, show-off kids who make inappropriate jokes. After Columbine, it's easy to believe the community's overreactions that threaten to ruin Matt, but it's more difficult to imagine anyone trusting his notoriously unreliable accusers. Though the cast of peers is weak, Matt and Ursula's relationship is compelling and genuine. The characterization of their distraught, and not always supportive, parents is equally revealing and poignant. The most memorable character, however, is Ursula herself. Ugly Girl, who doesn't cry, judge, or ever give in, finds it increasingly hard to remain alone. Readers will be fully involved in Matt and Ursula's unlikely friendship and in the larger issues arising from community fear. 2002, Harper Tempest/HarperCollins,
To quote from the review of the hardcover in KLIATT, May 2002: In this tale of two 16-year-old high school students, an unlikely romance blossoms out of a police investigation. Matt Donaghy, eager to be popular, is "Big Mouth," whose joke about a school massacre is overheard and misconstrued—resulting in a detective inquiry and subsequent lawsuit that comes close to ruining his life and that of his family. Ursula Riggs, a tall, strong athlete who secretly calls herself "Ugly Girl," hides behind the harsh persona she has constructed to shelter her feelings. Unafraid of what others might think, she stands up for Matt when everyone else suspects him, and comes to his aid later when, ostracized and miserable, he is on the verge of suicide. When his beloved dog is kidnapped, Ursula again bravely comes to the rescue. A relationship slowly develops between the two over the course of the winter, as Matt comes to understand the far-reaching consequences of his big mouth and Ursula learns more about reaching out and relating to others. In her first novel for YAs, Oates shows the same skill in portraying family dynamics and violence that she has in her adult fiction. Ursula, angry and proud of being a misfit, is not at first an appealing character, but gradually her integrity wins over the reader, and it's interesting to have a female in the role of bold rescuer for a change. Some strong language. KLIATT Codes: JS—Recommended for junior and senior high school students. 2002, HarperTempest, 266p.,
School Library Journal
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.
A seasoned pro from the world of adult literature turns her keen observer's eye to young-adult realism, with notable success. Big Mouth is Matt Donaghy, and when the reader first meets him, he is being led from class under police escort, having been overheard in the cafeteria threatening to blow up the school. Ugly Girl is Ursula Riggs, athletic and alienated, and she is the only student who understands instantly that the terrorism accusations against Matt are wholly baseless and is willing to act to clear him. Thus begins a friendship that develops as Matt sinks further and further into depression with the realization that his friends were all too willing to abandon him and as Ursula allows herself to relinquish the safe distance she's always kept. Oates effectively evokes the culture of high school, where association is everything and rumor almost always preferable to truth. By beginning the tale with Matt's accusation, she leaves herself room for a leisurely exploration of the personal and social repercussions on the kids, on the school, and on the families. The narrative moves back and forth from third person to first person as it tells Matt's and Ursula's stories, respectively. Ursula herself is an effectively drawn character, a girl who feels such a need to defend herself from the world of conformity that she has created an alter-ego she refers to in the third person: "I wiped at my eyes, annoyed that they were wet. It must've been caused by the March wind off the river for Ugly Girl doesn't cry." If Matt isn't quite so effectively presented by comparison and if some of the secondary characters are so underdeveloped as to be stock, the story itself and the way it unfolds iscompelling enough to override these details. Honest and penetrating. (Fiction. YA)
ALA Booklist (starred review)
“A thought-provoking, character-driven drama.”
“A divinely readable novel, one of the finest and most provocative in any genre of late.”
“A superb story bursting with themes relevant to high school life today.”
Denver Rocky Mountain News
“Should bring Oates a whole new generation of fans.”
San Francisco Chronicle
Middle and high school kids will find a lot rings true in “Big Mouth and Ugly Girl.”
"A thought-provoking, character-driven drama."
Read an Excerpt
It was an ordinary January afternoon, a Thursday, when they came for Matt Donaghy.
They came for him during fifth period, which was Matt's study period, in room 220 of Rocky River High School, Westchester County.
Matt and three friends -- Russ, Stacey, Skeet -- had formed a circle with their desks at the rear of the room and were conferring, in lowered voices, about Matt's adaptation of a short story by Edgar Allan Poe into a one-act play; after school, in Drama Club, the four of them were scheduled to read William Wilson: A Case of Mistaken Identity for the club members and their advisor, Mr. Weinberg. It was a coincidence that Mr. Weinberg, who taught English and drama at Rocky River High, was in charge of fifth-period study hall, and when a knock came at the door of the room, Mr. Weinberg went to open it in his good-natured, sauntering manner.
“Yes, gentlemen? What can I do for you?”
Only a few students, sitting near the front of the room, took much notice. They might have registered a note of surprise in Mr. Weinberg's tone. But Mr. Weinberg, with his graying sandy hair worn longer than most of his male colleagues' at Rocky River, and a bristling beard that invited teasing, had a flair for dramatizing ordinary remarks, giving a light touch where he could. Calling strangers “gentlemen” was exactly in keeping with Mr. Weinberg's humor.
At the rear of the room, Matt and his friends were absorbed in the play, for which Matt was doing hurried revisions, typing away furiously on his laptop. Anxiously he'd asked his friends, “But does this work? Is it scary, is it funny, does it move?” Matt Donaghy hadsomething of a reputation at Rocky River for being both brainy and a comic character, but secretly he was a perfectionist, too. He'd been working on his one-act play William Wilson: A Case of Mistaken Identity longer than his friends knew, and he had hopes it would be selected to be performed at the school's Spring Arts Festival.
Typing in revisions, Matt hadn't been paying any attention to Mr. Weinberg at the front of the room talking with two men. Until he heard his name spoken -- “Matthew Donaghy?”
Matt looked up. What was this? He saw Mr. Weinberg pointing in his direction, looking worried. Matt swallowed hard, beginning to be frightened. What did these men, strangers, want with him? They wore dark suits, white shirts, plain neckties; and they were definitely not smiling. As Matt stared, they approached him, moving not together but along two separate aisles, as if to block off his route if he tried to escape. Afterward Matt would realize how swift and purposeful -- and practiced -- they were. If I'd made a break to get my backpack...If I'd reached into my pocket...
The taller of the two men, who wore dark-rimmed glasses with green-tinted lenses, said, “You're Matthew Donaghy?”
Matt was so surprised, he heard himself stammer, “Y-Yes. I'm -- Matt.”
The classroom had gone deathly silent. Everyone was staring at Matt and the two strangers. It was like a moment on TV, but there were no cameras. The men in their dark suits exuded an authority that made rumpled, familiar Mr. Weinberg in his corduroy jacket and slacks look ineffectual.
“Is something w-wrong? What do you want with -- me?”
Matt's mind flooded: Something had happened at home to his mother, or his brother, Alex...his father was away on business; had something happened to him? A plane crash...
The men were standing on either side of his desk, looming over him. Unnaturally close for strangers. The man with the glasses and a small fixed smile introduced himself and his companion to Matt as detectives with the Rocky River Police Department and asked Matt to step outside into the corridor. “We'll only need a few minutes.”
In his confusion Matt looked to Mr. Weinberg for permission -- as if the high school teacher's authority could exceed the authority of the police.
Mr. Weinberg nodded brusquely, excusing Matt. He too appeared confused, unnerved.
Matt untangled his legs from beneath his desk. He was a tall, lanky, whippet-lean boy who blushed easily. With so many eyes on him, he felt that his skin was burning, breaking into a fierce flamelike acne. He heard himself stammer, “Should I -- take my things?” He meant his black canvas backpack, which he'd dropped onto the floor beside his desk, the numerous messy pages of his play script, and his laptop computer.
Meaning too -- Will I be coming back?
The detectives didn't trouble to answer Matt, and didn't wait for him to pick up the backpack; one of them took charge of it, and the other carried Matt's laptop. Matt didn't follow them from the room; they walked close beside him, not touching him but definitely giving the impression of escorting him out of study hall. Matt moved like a person in a dream. He caught a glimpse of his friends' shocked faces, especially Stacey's. Stacey Flynn. She was a popular girl, very pretty, but a serious student; the nearest Matt Donaghy had to a girlfriend, though mostly they were “just friends,” linked by an interest in Drama Club. Matt felt a stab of shame that Stacey should be witnessing this. . . . Afterward he would recall how matter-of-fact and practiced the detectives obviously were, removing the object of their investigation from a public place.
What a long distance it seemed, walking from the rear of the classroom to the front, and to the door, as everyone stared. There was a roaring in Matt's ears. Maybe his house had caught on fire? No, a plane crash...Where was Dad, in Atlanta? Dallas? When was he coming home? Today, tomorrow? But was it likely that police would come to school to inform a student of such private news...Big Mouth & Ugly Girl (AER). Copyright © by Joyce Oates. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.