Donna Jo Napoli, an author long admired for her fairy tale retellings (Zel, Beast, Bound and The Prince of the Pond), explores the famous Hans Christian Andersen story of The Ugly Duckling in a new version set in Tasmania.
Mother, a Pacific black duck, desperately encourages the enormous green egg in her nest to hatch. But when it does finally hatch, Mother is the only one who is happy. It seems that every critter on Dove Lake has it out for poor Ugly. The freckled ducks gang up on him, the grebes are simply terrified, and the teal ducklings bite him. Soon Mother has no choice. For the safety of the rest of her family, she sorrowfully lets him know his fate: You're my little genius. If you use your head, you have a chance. But if you stay here, you have none. The other ducks of Dove Lake will surely kill you. She advises him to make a friend. A friend helps. All anyone really needs is one good friend. So, sadly, that is what Ugly sets out to do, make a friend.
Napoli warmly embraces the wildlife of Tasmania through the eyes and beak of Ugly. First he attempts to befriend a plainspoken wallaby. But the wallaby seems only interested in boxing and protecting itself from the odious Tasmanian Devil, his most feared predator. Then, our unlikely hero meets up with a wombat, who promises to be a better friend, even though he stays in a hole and lives in fear of quolls. And on through the wonderful world of Tasmanian wildlife Ugly goes from wombat to swamphens to geese to human beings to possums and, finally, to swans. He learns the truth about himself and finds out that his mother was right after all: all anyone really needs is a good friend.
Napoli's hilarious ducky voice rings through this entertaining tale. She chooses not to talk down to her young readers, filling her prose with such scientific words as crepuscular, undulate, nocturnal and monotreme. A professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, Napoli conveys a contagious delight in language and a charming animal's-eye view of the world.