Sunday, July 01, 2007

Big Mouth & Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

This was Joyce Carol Oates first foray into young adult fiction and was met with very positive reviews! It was a very timely topic to say the least...and still is.

I loved the book! I thought Oates did a great job developing the characters of Ursula and Matt. I was drawn to Ursula's character and immediately felt great compassion for her, and for Matt as well. We all know how easily words can be misconstrued and come back to haunt you...and we all know how hard it is to be different. I wanted to stand up and cheer when Ursula had the conviction to stand up for Matt and speak to the principal. I really liked how the relationship slowly developed between Matt and Ursula. I liked how Oates interwove the emails into the story...they were honest and gave great insight into the minds and insecurities of teenagers.

Although overall I liked this novel, and wouldn't think twice about recommending it to students, there were things that did bother me. I thought Ursula's relationship with her father was odd. Early in the book you have the sense that it is strained to say the least. However at the end you're given the impression that things are just fine between them. I thought this was odd...unless as Ursula's character develops and evolves from an angry, "ugly" girl Oates alters her point of view of her father?! Perhaps this is also true of her relationship with the basketball team?

Anxious to see what you all think!

Kathy

18 comments:

Pam L said...

I agree with Kathy on all points. I think the characters of Matt and Ursula were well-developed in a logical, natural fashion. The responses of the other secondary characters were also very realistic which only magnified Ursula's integrity. I was uncomfortable with the portrayal of the adults until the last 50 pages. I have to admit, I have a real problem with modern YA literature and TV sitcoms in which the adults (especially parents and teachers) are illustrated as real idiots with no understanding of what's going on in their kids' lives. It seemed to me that in the end Oates was showing a little more of the adults' personalities. Since the narrator shifted from first person, Ursula, to third person, in chapters about Matt, the perspective was always "teenager." Matt and Ursula developed and grew and, therefore, so did their perspectives. For instance, Matt's mom's reaction to Pumpkin disappearing was heart-wrenching. I think this may have been a turning point for Ursula. She couldn't give her own mother the benefit of the doubt but she was able to sympathize with Mrs. D's weaknesses; maybe in turn she realized her mother might have some weaknesses too but was still human. Secondly, Matt's realization that Mr. Steiner's rejection of "Just for the Record" was on target. At the time, the reader may have felt that Steiner was also abandoning Matt; in reality, Matt was just unreachable at that time.
I will definitely recommend this book to students next year. I don't know if I'd adopt if for a "whole class" read although it is a timely subject. Good choice!

Cathy said...

I agree that the book was well written and that students would enjoy reading it. I have had students that could be Ugly Ursala. Students with high moral and ethical standards but they do not fit in so they chose to stand out even more. In doing that it is their choice.
At first I was troubled by the absentee parents and the competiveness of the school but then I realized that it was Westchester and it all fit together. In that competitve society it is all important what school you graduate from and what is in your cum folder. It was no surprise that Matt's friends were told not to get involved for fear of what would be written about them. I thinks Pam is right about the parents that they grew only after Ursala matures. Isn't that what happens suddenly our parents get wiser as we mature?
If the high shcool had been a country I would say that it was jingoistic. The lehgths that were used to get Matt's family to drop the law suit or even move were scary. The Reverend in trying to "do the right thing" would go so far as to I assume send poison letters and then do the thing that Matt was accused of doing all to keep the school" safe" from Matt and make it so his daughters were right????
This is the second book that we have read the portrays jocks as studpid and cruel. I felt that the kidnapping of the dog was hopefully unrealistic. The other events I could easily see happening. Matt's friends avoiding him for fear of their reputations, the team calling him fag and beating him up.Unfortunately I could see these happening in a high school. I was glad the the author kept Matt's and Ursala's friendship.I was afraid that when Matt was accepted again that he would leave Ursala. I was also glad to see Ursala come out of her protective shell of Ugly girl. Too many times the shell becomes the real person and their perspective of life becomes tainted.

Dawn said...

I would have to say that I liked the book but did not love it. I did not feel like I connected with the characters enough because some information was left to our imagination, like information on Matt's relationship with the boy that stole Pumpkin before he stole him. I believe both characters were strong in the sense of knowing their personalities. Yet, I wonder about the family relationships. I wonder if Matt and Ursula were typical teenagers or atypical teenagers. I agree with Pam when she stated that she has a problem with how YA literature and TV sitcoms portray adults. For example, I felt that Matt's mom acted more upset when Pumpkin was taken verses her son getting called down to the office for the bomb threat.
I would have to say my favorite part of the book was when Ursula went into detail about boring and crucial facts. Personally I would love to find a way to take her descriptions of these types of facts and relay it to essay writing.
If this book were used in school, I feel that some students could relate to one of the many characters in the book. I believe great discussions could take place by asking various questions throughout the book. Some of my questions are: 1. Why would Matt ask Ursula her opinion on the lawsuit and then sort of determine what their friendship is based on the answer? 2. Is the news accurate? 3. What other sources besides the news do we have to get accurate information on things happening in our community? 4. Doing what is right for you or trying to please a crowd/others - which is better and why? 5. Do you feel compared to your siblings? 6. Do you feel safety is an issue at your school? 7. Why do we stereotype people? Does it make us feel better about ourselves?
This list of questions is endless. I agree that this book would be enjoyed by many students and that students could relate due to the subject matter within. It is very fitting in our time. Not only have we experienced a number of bomb threats at school, but the number of people that turn to lawsuits seems to be on the rise as well. Although I felt that I didn't connect with the characters, I feel that I know certain students who would enjoy this book and will recommend it to them in the future.

Kim Seeley said...

I too loved this book!! I would recommend it to students in my class as well as my friends. I was anxious to see how Oates’ first Y.A. novel was and I was not disappointed. I loved the way she developed Ursula and Matt. The Fiery Red and Ugly sides to Ursala helped in the development of her character. It was interesting how the Oates took the bully of the story and made the attack center on him instead of having Matt bully people throughout the whole book. I thought the sharing of the e-mails was fantastic. It gave us an inside look into how the characters were feeling, including the deleted e-mails. I agree with Cathy, the kidnapping of the dog was not a very good storyline. I thought that was a poor way to try to start to wrap things up. Other than that, I liked most of the book. I would recommend it to my students to read on an individual basis, not as a whole class. Very good choice Kathy! Two thumbs up! Off to start the next one…

Kathy J. said...

I loved reading all your comments....they got me to thinking about the episode with Pumpkin and Matt's mother's response. As I read the story I too thought she was overreacting, compared to her reaction to her son's situation. But as I thought about it and read your comments I realized that her reaction was probably very realistic. I know I will often, when dealing with a crisis, keep a calm exterior and try to be the port in the storm for everyone...then let something small happen after the fact and it sets me over the edge into hysteria. Maybe this was Oates way of dealing with the mother's issues with Matt's situation? It probably wasn't just Pumpkin's kidnapping that set her off...but all the events of the story thus far that culminated in her over-the-top response. Does that make sense?

I also loved Dawn's questions- very thought provoking.

And Cathy is absolutely right...having grown up in CT, in the same corridor as Westchester County...I can verify that this aspect of the novel was acurately portrayed.

Kathy

Amanda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda said...

I also enjoyed the book. I thought it was interesting to discover how two characters, Ursula and Matt, that appeared to be very different to their peers were actually very similar on the inside. I think this would be a nice lesson for our students. So many times people assume that those who dress and act differently have nothing in common with the rest of the population, but if you take the time to get to know one another before making judgement I think we'd be surprised to see how similar we all are.
I am always a fan of happy endings, but even this ending was a little too neat for me. All of the sudden any issues between Ursula and her parents were resolved. It just didn't seem to fit.
My favorite parts of this story were Ursula's thoughts. I enjoyed her identifying her moods as inky black or firey red. I think that's a very mature quality to be able to recognize the mood you're in and understand how that is going to affect your interactions with others. It was also interesting to see how Ursula's thoughts evolved throughout the book. It seemed like to made less references to "Ugly Girl" as the plot progressed.
Great pick!

Becky said...

Sorry this is a little late, I have been on a trip cross country, just left Devils Postpile today!!

I enjoyed the book overall. I think that the characters were well developed, although more so Ursula than Matt. I found myself incredibly frustrated at times when the adults in the novel were so out of the loop and insensitive.

I was also a little surprised to the students reaction to Matt's persecution. I can see how some students might stop talking to him and treat him differently but I'm not sure all of his friends would alienate him. Maybe in a community like Westchester who knows.

I was very impressed with Ursula's ability to read her moods. Like Amanda said, it is very mature to be able to read yourself so well and know how it will affect your interactions with others. There are many adults who still can't do that.

I think the subject manner is timely and appropriate. I was a little put off by how the adults handled things both in and outside of the school and would like to think that would happen in real life.

I think students would enjoy this book and could easily relate to the characters. I would recommend it to students and it could create some interesting classroom discussions.

cvanslyk said...

Hello Everyone,
I'm sorry this is late. We have been out at out cottage for over a week with lots of company and no computer. I just wrote a blog about this book and totally lost it so this is a test to see if it will go through this time. I did very much like it and will definitely recommend it to students and possibly use it in class.
Charlene

cvanslyk said...

This was an excellent book which many of our students could relate to. Both Matt and Ursula were very likeable and their characters were well developed. Ursula came from a family where her little sister Lisa was treated as the favorite. Her parents seemed relatively clueless about this. I really think they meant well but did not really try to know their older daughter. She didn't fit in at home or at school but had high moral and ethical standards as Cathy mentionned. We have had many students who were like "ugly girl" over the years. Most of what occured in this book was realistic. However, would kids get that enraged because of litigation? The fact that Matt's parents initiated a law suit against the school doesn't seem to be something that would interest anyone but the adults and lawyers envolved. Also, when Matt asked Ursula her opinion of the law suit and she gave it, he got mad at her. Ursula is very admirable for her honesty and morality. She always put what was the right thing to do ahead of what would be the easiest for herself. The story of Pumpkin was very sad. Matt's mother had enough stress in her life and the last straw was when Pumpkin was kidnapped. This was a horribly cruel act that gave great insight into the type of people who committed it. To torture an innocent animal is totally pathetic. Dawn's questions would be great to start a class discussion or use for journal entries. I don't think that Ursula and Matt are typical teenagers but have many issues that teens can identify with. It was interesting how Ursula could predict when a mood was coming on. She was very attuned to her own emotions and respected Matt's right to his as well. She was a very perceptive person and could tell when Matt was thinking about what Trevor Cassity and his gang, out of pure meanness, had done to him. She would not try to cajole him out of a bad mood but would try to change the subject. At the end of the book Ugly Girl speaks about what she was learning. I liked her statement and hopefully it will help students who have been through a lot of heart aches. "There's no point in dwelling on the past and brooding, replaying old hurts and humiliations in your head." The ending was good. Matt preferred being with Ursula even though his old friends,who had turned against him, wanted him to party with them again. The parents became more understanding of their kids and Pumpkin was back home safe and loved. This was a very good choice of a book. Students will enjoy it.

rebeccakryger said...

I think this was a great book for young adult readers. Ursula and Matt are both interesting and typical high school students. I like that Matt respected Ursula for not wanting to be like the crowd and staying true to herself. Matt fit the typical high school persona of a student who does what he needs to do to fit in, and he only sees the way his so-called friends really were when he was made an outcast. This is a relevant point for YA readers and one that our students could learn a lot from. I wasn’t crazy about the ending of the novel. It was a little too storybook happy ending for me (I guess that sort of goes with the YA genre, though). As Kathy pointed out, suddenly Ursula has a great relationship with her dad, which seemed to come out of nowhere. Matt’s family, too, gets glossed over. They drop the lawsuit, but what about his father looking for other jobs? I also thought the Brewer twins and especially their father could have been more developed. His calling in a bomb threat pretending to be Matt was not believable enough for me. I felt like I just didn’t know his character enough…and I would think he would have been smart enough not to call when Matt was in a class with an alibi. Seemed like common sense to me. Overall, the well-written peer relationships and relevant bomb-threat situation outweigh any of the problems I had with the novel. Students would get a lot from this book, and they would stay interested in the characters and plot.

Darla said...

I liked the book as well.

Darla said...

I have to write what I am thinking before I read your blogs, so forgive me if I appear repetitive.
The story started off with a BANG or more correctley the absence of BANG, and it ended in a satisfying way, but some of the middle did seem to drag out. The beginning did keep your attention with Matt being taken away in the middle of class. You could easily see how something like this could be misconstrued and I have had lots of students like Matt whose mouths get them into a whole lot of trouble. It is ture! Many times they can not help it. It is like tourette's syndrome. They just can not keep their mouths closed and sometimes say things they don't mean. The administration took it way too far and i immediately felt sympathy for Matt. After all, we have to remeber who we are dealing with. Matt has a very active imagination and everyone at that school knows it. Look at his publishings...
The middle part was too descriptive at times. I don't always need to know exactly what Urs is wearing. I realize that her moods change with her clothes, but sometimes less is more. Also, having her speak in the third person so much took away the image that I had of her as being a "tough" cookie. Maybe that was her way of showing us that she wasn't so tough -skinned after all. It is cute when toddlers speak in the third person, but it was a bit annoying to hear a teenager do it. As a teacher, I do it, too, but when things are overdone, they lose their effect. About the parents, I believe that these high-powered parents are exactly as portrayed. Again, a sad feature of life, like the threat of bomb scares. The book was fun to read, but I am afraid that I am just too critical. Teenagers will love it and that is who it is for. The language was pretty good and the plot was appropriate. As for a theme....
I liked the quote "More insidious than the teachers' contempt was their praise." ( page 119) Hummmmmm. Really gives you something to think about .....

Lisa said...

I really enjoyed this novel. Oates definitely kept me drawn into the story. I think this would be a great read for all students. As I was reading, I kept thinking of different activites on characterization that could be used with this novel. Although I liked this novel, there were a few aspects of it that I had difficulty with, like many of you shared. I thought it was a bit much for Matt's "good" friends to ignore him completely after the "incident." Also, the portrayal of adults in the novel were a bit much for me. As I read through all of your comments, I kept thinking of their social status. I guess I could see how some of the affluent parents would threaten their children, reminding them to not get involved with Matt, for fear of jeopardizing their chances of getting into the "right" colleges or universities. However, they are high school students and they will do what they want. So, for all of Matt's friends to turn away was pretty unrealistic. Matt's mother is portrayed as a lonely, depressed, wealthy housewife. Yes, it was a bit much for her to carry on the way she did about Pumpkin, but what else does she feel she has?? As for the Brewer sisters and their father, I too, would've liked to known more about their lives. Oates was really reaching with the father calling in the bomb threat during school hours. I know that many of our students have very distant relationships with their parents and could definitely relate. I don't know how Ursula's mother could be so one-sided. I felt so badly for Ursula throughout the novel. I couldn't imagine attending events for one daughter and not the other!! I was so angry!! I liked the way the book ended with Ursula and Matt remaining together. I did think that Matt was going to drop her and go back to his friends. I think students could definitely relate to these characters and many aspects of peer relationships and cliques. Overall, great pick!!

Jen said...

Hi everyone. This has taken me a long time. I am not done with the book. Summer School has actually taken more time than I would have expected. I will finish. I did not read everyone's blogs yet. I will say I like the characters and believe younger people would like them as well. I think the book has places in it that students would connect with. I will finish ASAP.

Jim West said...

Finally!!! I have been trying to gain access here for almost an hour now. Lost my id and password, and had to start all over!! Ugh!!!

Sorry I am so late...been off on vacation and did not finish the book until recently...

The book was fantastic!!! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and felt that it was a definite page turner for me! I think that teenagers today would really enjoy something like this.

At first I was a little concerned about the subject matter, as we have had many bomb threats lately, and I think it is terrible to create entertainment off of something that is bad. However, the story did not go as I initially thought, and I found it to be more positive. I guess if we really want teenagers to like to read, we must author books that they can relate to. It is unfortunate that often times what they can relate to is something of this nature....

Anyway, the characters were awesome, and well developed I thought, except for the adults. I did not question this as I read the book, but many focused on Matt and Ursula. Oates did a great job in protraying development of teenagers, and the things that they must deal with....the superficial friendships, the relationships that occur like between two different people (Matt and Ursula), parents favoring one sibling over another, etc.

I loved the questions Dawn presented. It think they would be great for class discussion and for journaling.

I just began the next book in our list, and hope to have it completed in a more timely fashion...I am a little slower of a reader than most of you, it seems!! I look forward to everyone's comments!!

Jen said...

Well, I finished. I enjoyed the book. I have also enjoyed reading all reactions to it. I agree with many of the relections. I wanted to mention a few specific things. One is the "obstacle race" that Ursula mentions on page 143. I wish she had developed that more. I believe it is an insightful comment for a girl in high school to make. I am not sure that girls in high school would understand the mention that the oppression of women is not just by men but that women and girls did "it" to themselves as well. I wish she had developed more with this. I think that it may be an important idea for young girls and women alike to think about. I believe girls would get the oppression by men comment; hopefully, they would reflect on the second part of her comment about the "obstacle race" as well. I found that interesting.

I also like the message that cyberspace is forever message that this book sends. Kids put their pictures on My Space without thinking about the consequences for putting that and other information out there for the world to see. It is frightening to think that what goes on the computer is (or can be) there for ever in a sense.

The theme of society's influence on the individual (mass hysteria) is a theme that shows up in many classic novels. It is nice to have the theme portrayed in a novel that is more contemporary.

In John Steinbeck's the pearl, he engages the reader with symphony when he mentions the song of the family/ the song of self/ etc... I always thought that he did that to demonstrate the lack of education of the main characters; thus they did not have the language to express themselves. I find the "Inky Black" reference and the "Fiery Red" references as both a connection to Steinbeck's symphony and a new way to think about it.

Lastly, I just liked this comment for the value of making me think...
I can't find the exact page but it is (paraphrased) the worst thing about history is human nature. Insightful comment. Enjoy!!!!

Kathy J. said...

jI really enjoyed reading everyone's postings and I just have to say that Jen's comment about the "obstacle race" and the role of girls/women in our society...or their opression thereof really imacted me as well. I too wished Ursula (ie Oates) developed this theme a bit more...but perhaps it would have taken the novel off course?! I've always felt that women can sometime be their own worst enemies...and I wish this idea/concept would be developed more in ya literature. I worry that today's young women don't have the fire or passion that Ursula does, that we might be taking some major steps backwards.

Thanks for all your insightful comments. Please feel free to comment/respond more than once...if you have a reaction to someone's comments please let us know. Stay tuned for Looking for Alaska...coming soon!

Kathy