This gentle retelling of the “Ugly Duckling” tale combines the satisfactory ending with a love of natural beauty.
Ugly by Donna Jo Napoli, with illustrations by Lita Judge. Hyperion, 2006, 186 pages
Reading level: Middle grades, ages 8-10
Recommended for: ages 6-10
The first thing he was ever called was Dud. And that was before he was even hatched. Though his mother, a beautiful Pacific black duck, was the best mom an ugly duck could have, and though some of his siblings were nice to him, by the time they were grown enough to notice how big and clumsy he was, it was plain he would never make it among the ducks. “Head north,” said his mother. “And make a friend. A friend helps. All anyone needs is a good friend.” Left alone, Ugly soon learns how right she was: Being alone is wrong. His challenge is to find a friend among the fauna of Tasmania. Wallaby punches him (because that’s what wallabies do). Wombat snuggles with him, but birds aren’t made for wombat burrows. Honker and Grunter welcome him as a fellow hopeful bachelor, but they meet an untimely fate. Then there was the Old Woman . . and Husband . . . and the long winter during which Ugly gave up and almost did not survive.
We all know the rest, but this retelling of a familiar story brims with charm and pathos and lots of nature. We learn with our protagonist about the furred and feathered species of Tasmania, and develop a special fondness for marsupials. But facts don’t swamp the story of this gentle soul looking for a home and finding one. While disparaging of himself, Ugly is open to the beauty around him, especially when unwillingly encountering his own kind:
. . . all four ran across the top of the water, faster and faster, till they finally took flight. They rose higher and flew faster than the ducks and geese. In flight I could see stark white at the very tips of their wings. My feathers stood stiffly out, ready for flight. I wanted to follow. I loved those birds . . . I couldn’t help it. I loved them. I wanted to be with them. Now and always.
Ugly’s wry, sympathetic voice makes this a great read-aloud, especially if you can manage a down-under accent. The line-drawing illustrations add to warm tone.
Overall rating: 4.5 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 4
- Artistic value: 4.5