The young adult book genre has expanded rapidly over the last decade, creating reading niches for a variety of teenage interests, from the currently ubiquitous choices that include vampires and werewolves to the popular dystopian series. But, one of my favorite growing topics in the world of YA literature is cultural/travel fiction. I think it is outstanding when kids sitting in their suburban American homes can open and book and be suddenly transported to Southeast Asia, South Africa or South America. Leanne Statland Ellis’ soon-to-be-released book does just that- taking readers on a journey to Peru and the thriving Incan civilization.
Names are an important part of this tale, with the narrator going by several different ones, depending on who is addressing her. (Tale is a fitting label for this book, as it reads like a mystical tale from the ancient oral traditions, tying the reader up in the story as pages fly by.) She is called by her given name, Micay, by her loving older sister, but mocked as The Ugly One by a young bully in her village. As her story progresses, she gains other monikers, more fitting to her changing situation, but at heart, she remains the same strong young woman.
Micay’s name isn’t the only morphing element of the book, as her role within her small mountainous village is challenged and set on a new path by a stranger from the jungles below. While she initially doesn’t believe she is destined for great things, those around her see a potential that, with the right help, she is capable of achieving.
A great middle-level book is one that not only entertains, but draws on universal themes that open larger dialogs, which is an area this book excels. From the tale of the bully and his painful words to the difficult decision of when it is right to put one’s personal desires before those of the community, The Ugly One provides a great deal of fodder for thought and discussion.
The reading level of The Ugly One is not particularly difficult, making the book easily accessible to a wide range of middle school readers, although some might struggle with the occasional unfamiliar Incan word. Luckily, there is a great glossary at the back of the book, which not only helps the reader follow the narrative, but as a teacher, I love having yet another chance to introduce students to references sections in different types of literature.
The one place I felt letdown by this book was at the very ending. As the narrative is wrapping up and the reader gets a glimpse into what the future holds for the main characters, I felt that one young man who played a critical role in the story is left out of the story. I was really hoping to get at least a hint as to whether sharing a moment of understanding with Micay is enough to change this boy’s outlook or if his attitude is too deeply engrained to transform into something more positive.
Overall, Leanne Statland Ellis’ The Ugly One is a great read for students, drawing them out of themselves and into another time and another culture, earning the book: