I was thrifting the other day (what a surprise), when I found a book by Donna Jo Napoli that I couldn’t resist.
I knew as soon as I saw Ugly that it was a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling. I also had a hunch it would be a great book, since I enjoyed her book The Prince of the Pond so much.
I was not disappointed. Ugly follows the traditional story very closely, but Napoli expands it with dialogue that clearly expresses Ugly’s world and feelings. Her writing style is wonderfully expressive without being too complicated for middle grade readers. Ugly is also moved from Europe to Tasmania. Ugly, as the other ducks call him, is an Australian Black Swan.
You may remember that I don’t like the traditional story a whole lot. I feel like it sends a message about bullying and the need for a duckling to change into something else, when really, the duckling has inner beauty all along. But this version has a better Mother, she loves Ugly and stands up for him repeatedly. She only relents and asks him to leave when she realizes that the other ducks mean to kill him, and his presence places the other seven ducklings in danger. You can feel her heartbreak as she asks him to go. She does give him sound advice, telling him that he is a genius, to use his head and:
All anyone really needs is one good friend.
Even though the story follows the traditional version, Napoli found a way to weave in Australian animals. Ugly’s journey is met with boxing wallaby, a kind of friendship with a wombat, two well-meaning but misguided geese, an unfortunate run-in with a platypus and finally a true friendship with a Golden Brushtail Possum and her baby. It is with Possum that Ugly finally finds true friendship and an unlikely family.
The warmth of Possum and her baby’s love are what get Ugly through the winter. When he finds a lamentation of swans, he doesn’t know why he longs to be with them, but he knows deep down that it is meant to be. I was so happy that the strength he found in Possum’s friendship gives him the courage to approach. In the traditional version he goes to the swans resigned to them killing him for being so ugly, but finding fleeting joy in just being close to them. Napoli’s story has a much better message, by far.
The icing on the cake was that Ugly (the book never gives him a new name) returns to the lake where he was born and seeks out his duck mother. They reunite with an understanding that they are from different worlds, but she makes her love for him clear.
I might be hooked on Napoli’s retellings. I have a cart full of her books picked out on ThriftBooks.