Book Review: “Uglies” by Scott Westerfeld

I was in middle school when the Uglies book series came out. I remember seeing the book a lot. A lot of my classmates were reading it and it was at the Scholastic Bookfair and at the libraries I frequently haunted.

I didn’t read it then. I was vaguely curious about it. Books tended to seep through the school, allowing a series to make the rounds. But Uglies came out the same year as Twilight did and Twilight took a stronger hold over my school and with all the other books I was reading I just never got around to Uglies. I think part of it is something I noticed when trying to figure out how to take a picture of it for my bookstagram. For me holding a book with big blocky letters that said UGLIES made me feel like I was making a statement and I think I wanted to avoid anyone looking at what I was reading and making any sort of comment.

The series in general I found awkward to read. Not in the actual process of reading but just by being hyper aware of the book itself. I was borrowing the books from a friend and she had two different editions. Some were fine, just artistic covers of some girl staring at the viewer. But oof there was one that felt awkward. I have never wanted a book cover like they have in Japan so badly for a book. (Bookstores in Japan can give you a plan cover to protect your book and it also gives you some privacy while reading places like on the train so no one knows what you’re reading.)

I didn’t know what the book was about really, I had this vague idea it was about cliques and breaking into a clique you didn’t belong in. Which it is about that, sort of, but it’s also very much a dystopian novel and I wasn’t expecting that.

Uglies is set in the future, after we (nicknamed the Rusties) have destroyed the world/a plastic eating virus has destroyed the world for us. And the survivors have realized that among many things one thing that helped keep everyone chill and not try to murder everyone is that when you turn 16 you go from being a regular child/person to undergoing surgery to make you a pretty. (Aka everyone looks the same) In this case that’s big innocent features so everyone automatically trusts you and then you move across the river from your boarding school (aka Uglyville) with all the other “uglies” and to beautiful mansions where it seems you just party like a drunken college frat/sorority cliche (New Pretty Town), until eventually you settle down with another pretty and have kids until that kid can go to school and you live in the suburbs and are known as “Crumblies”.

The book follows Tally Youngblood who is dreaming of her time as a Pretty, because she’s one of the last to leave Uglyville and have the surgery and she wants to spend time with her friends again. Specifically her best friend, Peris who she use to call “Nose” because apparently when you’re ugly (a regular person) you nickname all your friends by whatever characteristic they’re hyper aware of and shy about. Tally’s is Squint…and yikes. All of these are just…yikes.

Tally is bored with all her friends having moved on to bigger and better things in New Pretty Town, so she decides to play a trick (do something you’re not suppose to) and use her hover board to sneak over and into a pretty party to see her friend. Doing this is a big no no, Uglies (or kids under 16) aren’t allowed into New Pretty Town.

By pulling off this “trick” she eventually meets Shay (her nickname is Skinny) and Shay is Tally’s opposite in a lot of core ways. The biggest being that she doesn’t want to be pretty. She wants to stay the way she is and she wants to run away beyond the city walls past the Rusty ruins. She teaches Tally new tricks and they go on many adventures with their hoverboards outside of their dorms and the edges of the city they live in. Eventually after playing tricks with Tally and becoming new bff’s, Shay successfully runs away. Tally refuses to go with her. It’d ruin all her plans, all her hopes and dreams and that feeling of belonging she craves.

But when it’s Tally’s turn, her birthday, she wakes up post surgery to find out the surgery didn’t happen. Instead she’s interrogated about Shay. Where did Shay go? Why did Shay leave? It’s dangerous out there in the wilderness and there must be a cult luring citizens away from their good society and if Tally wants to ever be pretty then she must find Shay and bring her back. She’s given a pendant from Dr. Cable, the head of special circumstances (something everyone assumed was a myth) and once Tally finds the Smoke (people rebelling in the wild and living outside of society), then she’s to activate the tracker and she and Shay will be rescued and she can move forward with becoming a pretty.

Tally Youngblood’s journey through the wilderness on her fancy hoverboard (upgraded by Dr. Cable)  and the intricacies of the world she lives in are fascinating. Hoverboards work via a magnetic system so they can only work in the wild by using old ruins or over the metal deposits in rivers. She also has all these supplies, given to her by Dr. Cable to survive her two week trek to find the smoke that reminds me of reading hiker blogs, especially through hikers who do long week to month-long trips. (Like the Caffinated Hiker’s PCT posts).  Dr. Cable gave her two weeks of freeze dried food for her journey and it was all the same thing, SpagBol aka Spaghetti Bolognese and Tally got sick of that fast.  (I would too, I can’t eat the same thing for all three meals.) There’s just so much love in the books for the wild and the wilderness and nature untouched and the fascination of someone seeing it for the first time on their own that almost makes me want to do a through hike on my own. (Maybe some day.)

But the rest of the book deals with the Smoke, a ready to collapse and move at any moment city of renegades living off the land in pre-rusty style. Everything about it is rebellious and for good reason, telling the darker truth behind the pretty operations and society in general. Making what seemed like a Utopia in truth a dystopian nightmare.  And this launches Tally into how she is throughout the books, an unwilling hero, an unwilling player in a larger scheme of things. (Arguably how most of the dystopian novels written for teens during that time are i.e. Hunger Games)

I really enjoyed the books, despite wading through a ton of slang made specifically for whatever phase of life or place Tally was in. Following her and her identity, as she tried to find herself constantly through the changes in the world and truths about that world around her really struck a cord. Especially as she shredded her prejudices and preconceived notions about beauty by trying to unlearn 16 years of strict beauty standards. That was a huge struggle and it was a little difficult to understand what people looked like beyond the judgmental 16 year old eyes who believed everyone was ugly unless they’d gone through this perfected surgery.

But I really enjoyed her difficult journey and it propelled me into reading the rest of the series. (Uglies was a trilogy where a fourth book was added and then a comic book series. I borrowed the four books from my friend.)

The book’s arguably biggest question that puts it in the science fiction dystopian genre is:

If everyone looked the same would society be better? What would happen in that world? What do you think?

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