CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 2 . . . . September 16, 2016
This autobiographical and highly personal account unfolds sequentially, presenting major events in the life of author Robert Hoge, an Australian man born with congenital differences resulting from medication his mother was prescribed while pregnant. In the straightforward narrative style of a very capable writer, Hoge describes the legs that were eventually amputated in favour of prosthetics, and the face that, through surgeries, eventually hosted a working nose constructed from another body part. In addition to developmental milestones, Hoge also relates particularly poignant memories that offer even more opportunity for characterization of the boy that he was: a surprisingly successful day at a grapefruit stand, after which his friend's parents made them return half the money to a generous neighbour; receiving the strap at school for his poor handwriting; the experience of writing his first love letter to another nine-year-old. Chapter by chapter, the book moves from family circumstances around Hoge's birth to the choice he is given, at age 14, for a massive facial reconstruction that could correct remaining disparities but which might also convey dangerous side-effects.
Because of the book's engaging text, created with prose that is both comprehensible and visually-rich, Ugly is very appropriate for adults and young adults in addition to middle-elementary-school readers. This wide audience is unfortunately not as well-reflected by the original illustrations, created as pen and ink cartoons by Keith Robinson. In style, these pictures, placed as they are through various chapters, would better suit the context of a primary-grade resource and will limit the book's potential distribution. One other drawback involves the chapter titles which are uneven assets to readability—sometimes flagging the main idea of the chapter, but at other times introducing references that will be obscure to many readers. "We All Fall Down," for example, taken from the old nursery rhyme, titles the following list of anecdotes: a reflection on Sklab's disintegration and Hoge's related fantasy of heroism; a track and field day where Hoge falls but carries on; a trick Hoge played at school that involved dropping one artificial leg and hopping about; and an incident when Hoge was stuck in the mud, twice, during a school excursion.
Hoge's honest presentation of his physical uniqueness, the responses he has had from others, and his acknowledgement of those responses, is original in literature for children and young adults, and offers a lens through which many readers will come to think about themselves and others in important ways. Books such as this are critical in a world where respect for diversity is prized, and authors with Hoge's gift for sharing personal experiences have an important role in shifting boundaries and developing new perspectives related to exceptionality. Fiction titles such as Beth Goobie's Born Ugly and Eric Walters' My Name is Blessing take us through some of this territory, and it is about time that autobiography adds its authentic voice to the sharing of stories about physical difference.
Bev Brenna, a literacy professor at the University of Saskatchewan, has 10 published books for young people.
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