Matt Donaghy has always had a big mouth. But it's never gotten him into trouble -- until the day he is accused of threatening to blow up Rocky River High School.
Ursula Riggs -- a.k.a. Ugly Girl -- is the school loner, with no patience for petty high school stuff. She is content with minding her own business.
But Ursula is the only one who knows what Matt said that day...and she is the only one who can help him.
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.
Hometown:Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:Lockport, New York
Education:B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961
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.
Reading Group Guide
Matt Donaghy has always been a Big Mouth. But it's never gotten him in trouble -- until the day Matt is accused of threatening to blow up Rocky River high School.
Ursula Riggs has always been an Ugly Girl. A loner with fierce, staring eyes, Ursula has no time for petty high school stuff like friends and dating -- or at least that's what she tells herself. Ursula is content with minding her own business. And she doesn't even really know Matt Donaghy.
But Ursula is the only person who knows what Matt really said that day and she is the only one who can help him.
Topics for Discussion
- Discuss the situation in the school when Matt was first accused of threatening to blow it up. Do you think Mr. Parrish was right to call the police? What perpetuated the gossip and how do you think the adults involved could have handled the situation better? Do you think something like this could happen in your school?
- What do you think caused Ursula to stand up for Matt? After she helps, why do you think she avoids him?
- Discuss the relationship that Matt and Ursula have with their families. What are the similarities and differences? How do these family relationships change through the course of the novel? How do these people grow within the novel?
- Discuss Ursula and Matt's friendship. How do these two characters change throughout the novel? What effect did Ursula and Matt have on each other? What would their relationship be like if Matt had never been accused?
- Matt and Ursula begin their friendship over email. Many times they hit the Cancelinstead of Send key and say "easier thatway." Why do they say this? What role does email play in the development of their friendship?
- The Donaghys decide to file a lawsuit. What factors do you think helped them make this decision? How did it effect Matt? Ursula said she thought "asking for money made everything so cheap somehow." Do you agree?
- Discuss the role the media played. How did the coverage perpetuate the tensions and gossip in the school and in the town? Can you think of any examples of how something like this really could or did happen in your local news?
- Discuss Matt's relationships with his friends before he was accused. How did Matt's friends react after he was questioned by the police and suspended? Do you feel they betrayed him? Why or why not?
- Ursula and Matt both make the same comment several times in the novel: "I will not give up." Why is this such a strong statement? Discuss how and when they both use this statement throughout the book.
- Do you think Matt and Ursula see themselves as Big Mouth and Ugly Girl at the end of the novel.
About the author
Joyce Carol Oates is the renowned author of many novels, including the National Book Award finalist and New York Times best-seller Blonde. A recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, Ms. Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Back to School: In Her First Novel for Young Adults, an Esteemed Author Addresses the Fallout from Columbine
From the May/June 2002 issue of Book magazine.
Fans of the prolific Joyce Carol Oates are familiar with the author's penchant for young characters -- Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, You Must Remember This, and We Were the Mulvaneys all focus on the trials and yearnings of teenage girls. But Oates has only now written a book specifically for young adults. Big Mouth & Ugly Girl, a portrait of an awkward friendship between a loner school athlete and a boy she defends for joking about killing people in his school, is based on several post-Columbine newspaper accounts of students reporting on each other out of fear and paranoia. Oates, a creative-writing professor at Princeton University, explains why she wrote this book and describes her love for young characters.
Not many young adult novels address school violence. Why?
I'm surprised. Maybe publishers are a little wary about getting into it. There isn't any school violence in my novel -- it's basically just the threat, the specter of it. The subject will be addressed; it just takes some time. It's like writing about September 11th. Unless you're going to write about it in a really profound and significant way, you don't want to write something light. I know in my adult fiction, except for one very short piece I did for the London Observer, I am really nonincorporated in my writing. It's too important to just be in the background, and yet, unless you're going to write a whole thing about it, it can't be in the foreground either. You can't trivialize something like that.
A lot of young adult authors try to teach teens some kind of lesson. Did you feel compelled to do this in Big Mouth & Ugly Girl?
Not really. There's always a moral in my writing, although it's not necessarily explicit. In this little novel, these young people are made to realize certain flaws in their personalities and characters, which we all can learn. What's so wonderful about adolescents is that they change so rapidly. When you're forty or fifty or sixty years old, you just don't know how to change that well.
How is writing for young adults different from writing for adults?
It allows me to move swiftly without the layers of description and expository background that are more customary for adult fiction. Basically, it's just stripped-down adult fiction with more dialogue and less description. In adult fiction you do things with language -- for example, you might repeat certain adjectives for an atmospheric effect. In young adult fiction, that isn't done, and the chapters tend to be shorter. So I got the idea to write from one point of view and then another point of view, and that makes it move even faster.
What is it about adolescent characters that you find compelling?
I think many women still identify with adolescent selves, a feeling of uncertainty and a kind of awkwardness physically and not knowing your place in the world. I think adolescents are very sensitive about things that adults have learned to accept with more composure. I guess I just feel sympathetic with that age group. I feel at ease with them.
What kind of stories are teens looking for in their literature?
I think that they're looking for stories about their own lives -- to get help with their own lives, ways to behave and analyze emotional situations. I think it's less character-driven, but they obviously would like to identify with some characters. It's more situational.
Your book spans only about four months, but the characters grow up quite a bit.
Which is so typical. I've seen changes in my students, who are between the ages of 18 and 21, at Princeton. It's very interesting. They have such passionate friendships -- it's so touching. And of course their hearts are broken so easily. I really identify with that. And then the young man, I should call him a boy -- he's not a young man, he's a boy -- he just says things to be funny, he says the wrong thing, and he gets himself into trouble. And we've all had the temptation to say things, but when you're older, you bite your tongue, you learn to be more prudent.
He didn't even remember all that he said when he was joking about shooting people.
And you wouldn't, either. It's so sad, because this is going on in high schools. People are getting into trouble for what would possibly just be something in bad taste, making a joke about something that isn't funny. (Kristin Kloberdanz)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A wonderful tale of two unlikely friends told in two voices: Big Mouth-- a fairly popular boy, good student, make-em laugh type boy who impulsively jokes about a bombing his high school and finds himself in serious trouble and Ugly Girl-- the sharp witted, plain faced, big boned and friendless loner who stands up for a boy she barely knows because it is the right thing to do. Matt and Ursula become friends-not quickly or easily-- but when the entire town turns on Matt and his whole world collapses, Ursula, who is used to being ostracized and is very strong-- but not happy-- about it, becomes his only and his true friend. Two teens who struggle with friendships and family issues and social pressures and real danger. Oates is a master storyteller and her characters are well thought out and nuanced. we care about every imperfect one. i really liked the book, a quick read with lots of place for conversation about society, rumors, true friends, schools, police, families, and feelings. i will say that the end seemed a little rushed and too neatly tied up, but this is still a great book and a good choice for middle and high school aged.
I found it admirable that Ursula stood up for the truth. Matt was smart, a joker - I'd have laughed if I was there. It was a believable story, although I have no idea whether real detectives would be so clumsy, abrasive and apparently thick, failing to investigate accuser as well as accused. I was disappointed and sad that the teachers didn't appear to support Matt. That his friends' parents told their kids to avoid him, even though they knew him to be innocent, really pisses me off at those parents. I think his friends should have ignored their parents in this case because he was their friend and needed them.
It was a pretty good book but, it needed more action like kind of suspense. The ending part was pathetic and there were parts were I would just get lost. I give it 3 stars.
In Joyce Carol Oates first novel for young adults she once again proves herself as an outstanding interpreter. She is excellent at describing Matt and Ursulas thoughts. However it gets somewhat boring halfway through the book as hardly anything new comes in and it seems somewhat tiring reading her style of writing.
this book was soo boring..... its written for the mind set of a 10 year old i cound't handle it ugh i picked it for and english asignment so now im stuck with it i suggest u dont read it its pointless reading 'fun'
I thought that this book was outstanding, and one that you don't read everyday. I loved how realistic their relationship was, as in they didn't just meet and one day later they had fallen in love...that's not too realistic to me. They were friends, and then they slowly came to realize they liked each other more and more than that. I loved it and I thought the ending was great (the last few pages, and the last thing that happened) as well as the rest of the book. Two thumbs up as well as my big toes!
This book is excited and better then the other books that I have read. I read this book during my 1st semster of summer school. Joyce C. Oates give a lot details about Matt and Urula. The book has both thoughts ( Matt and Urula) and it is a good discussion book with friends and family. I hope other people who like to read diffrent sides with a chapter and cauple chapters with different minds.
The book was exciting and then just stopped being exciting. I got bored in the last 10 or more chapters. The book was good though in the beginning.
It was so funny! i was laughing histarically in my seat! two unlikely people being friends by the weirdest situation. can't tell you what it is. you're gonna have to find out yourself!!!!!
I don't know how else to say it - this book is awesome. Any person I have recommended it to, whether it be a fellow teacher or one of my students, agrees with me. It is on my top ten list of all time favorite books, and I'm sure it will be on your list as well.
well i think this book was excellent. it can relate to all teenagers. you can feel for "big mouth" and what he must have been going through. i mean who hasnt said something joking around that has been misheard and turned around. i know it happpened to me so i could reallly put myself in his place. and "ugly Girl" is such an amazing chaaracter. she sticks up for the guy she barely knows and they fall in love. i just kept on reading and reading wondering which way it would turn next. it was a great book and i know you will love it!!!!
This book was so good! I couldnt put it down. I would stay up till 1 in the morning reading. ever since ifinished reading it i have been trying to find more like it.if ne1 no's ne please tell me
I thought the book Big Mouth and Ugly Girl was really good. The characters Matt is different from the standard high school guys you read about and Ursula is unique in her own way;being self-sonscious of letting people read her. I admit at first the book did seem boring but as i got futher into the story I understood. I think what the author's trying to say is that you should watch how you act towards others and you have to watch what you say because it could come back to hurt you. Overall I thought the book was extremely well written no matter what others think.
The book was great, even tough the problem only lasted like two chapters! It was how Ugly Girl made her life better and overcame problems. It also showed how your 'friends' can be jerks. This is a sweet story.I give it two thumbs up!
I thought the book was very boring. The major problem only lasted like 2 chapters and then it was over and it talked about nothing!
Although the action was somewhat predictable and thinly motivated in places I was compelled by the two main characters to read along and see how their relationship developed. Matt and Ursula were mostly believable, but the chemistry between them was more intriguing than either of the kids taken alone. The horror of a kidnapped pet dog was a stretch -- overly emotional. If you like to read about the dynamics of high school rumor mills (which seem more like middle school rumor mills...)you will go for this story. The identity of the 'real harasser' was too plainly predictable, and so, the story was unsatisfyingly lacking in real intrigue.
I think Big Mouth and Ugly Girl is a great book for people my age to read. It tells a story about two friends that have been rejected before in their lives. And even after their rejection, they still find goodness in each other. Ugly Girl has never had many friends, but Big Mouth started out being very popular with a lot of friends and everyone liked him. Then, Big Mouth got himself into some trouble, and Ugly Girl was the only one there that wanted to help him. This is a story of how there friendship grows as the days go by, and how nobody could tear them apart. Everybody needs a friend like one of them in their life. this was an overall great book.