90 pages 3 hours read

Scott Westerfeld


Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


Uglies by Scott Westerfeld is a young adult science fiction novel and the first book of the Uglies Quartet. Published in 2005, Uglies was awarded the ALA 2006 Best Books for Young Adults award, the ALA 2006 Popular Paperback for Young Adults award, the Kirkus Editor’s Choice award, and the SLJ Best Book of the Year award. Uglies is followed by Pretties, Specials, and Extras.

This guide uses the May 2011 Simon & Schuster BFYR paperback edition.

Content Warning: This study guide contains extensive discussions of issues related to physical appearance and body image.

Plot Summary

The novel is set in a futuristic dystopian society based on aesthetic beauty. Citizens are segregated based on their appearance. Children, known as “uglies,” live in Uglyville until they turn 16. At that age, they undergo surgical procedures to alter and enhance their appearance. Teenagers who have completed surgery are called “pretties” and live in New Pretty Town.

Tally Youngblood is a 15-year-old “ugly” waiting to turn 16 so she can get the surgery to become a “pretty” and reunite with her best friend, Peris. Dismayed by their long separation, Tally sneaks over to New Pretty Town to see him, but she is surprised and heartbroken when he sends her away to wait. To steal a bungee jacket, Tally sets off a fire alarm; with the jacket’s protection, she then leaps from a party tower, drawing attention from pretties and wardens alike. While escaping back across the river to Uglyville, she meets Shay, a fellow ugly who was also sneaking around. As they establish a friendship, Tally realizes they share the same birthday.

Tally and Shay grow close. Shay teaches Tally how to hoverboard, and the two play pranks together. Shay also takes Tally to explore the Rusty Ruins—remnants of a prior civilization. After a huge argument in which Shay expresses her desire to stay “ugly” and not get the pretty surgery, she tells Tally about a group of people who have shunned the restrictive nature of their society and live in a community called the Smoke. She asks Tally to go with her to the Smoke, but Tally refuses. They part ways after Shay gives Tally a cryptic note with clues to find her should Tally change her mind.

The day of Tally’s pretty surgery, she is taken to Special Circumstances headquarters. There, she is questioned by a beautiful but cruel woman named Dr. Cable. Dr. Cable claims that the Specials (those who work at Special Circumstances headquarters) keep the city safe and that the Smoke poses a threat. Tally refuses to help them and is sent back to Uglyville. Over the next few days, her parents and Peris visit her, and Peris reminds Tally of their promise to be best friends forever. Tally agrees to help Special Circumstances; in exchange, they give her survival supplies and a long-distance hoverboard. Dr. Cable also gives Tally a locket with a tracking device that will activate when Tally scans her eye with it.

Tally travels for four days, overcoming obstacles and struggling to translate Shay’s clues. She rests by a field of white flowers but wakes up surrounded by fire. She is rescued by rangers who explain they are doing a controlled burn to keep the parasitic flowers at bay. They deliver her to the rendezvous point for the Smoke, where Tally later meets Shay and three others. They find a tracking device hidden on her hoverboard, and Tally meets David, the teenager in charge of interacting with ugly recruits. Tally follows them to the Smoke, a small encampment filled with uglies from cities all over the world. Tally is horrified at some of the Smokies’ ways, like cutting down trees and eating meat, but hesitates to activate her locket. Shay notices her new necklace but assumes it came from a significant other, telling Tally not to feel guilty about informing this person about the Smoke.

Tally integrates into the Smoke, building a trail for hoverboards with the other teenagers. David is impressed by her seriousness and gifts her a pair of gloves, which is significant because of the rarity of materials in the Smoke. This sparks Shay’s jealousy, especially because she believes Tally has feelings for someone else. Croy, one of Shay’s old friends, expresses doubts about Tally’s journey to Smoke, but when Tally talks to David about it, he laughs it off. Privately, Tally tells David she was mostly concerned about Shay and is thinking of leaving Smoke. David takes her to meet his parents, Maddy and Az. They were once doctors in Tally’s city but discovered that the pretty surgery alters the brains of those who experience it, creating lesions that make them agreeable and pliable. Considering this revelation, Tally decides to stay in Smoke and throws her tracker in the fire.

The next day, Specials arrive at the encampment. Tally tries to escape but has no shoes and is caught. She is taken to Dr. Cable, who asks Tally to bring her the locket. Tally tricks the Special guarding her into cutting her handcuffs and steals a hoverboard, flying to a cave David once showed her. She finds David, and they shelter together until the next day. They find the Smoke burned and the Smokies gone. When they check David’s childhood home, his parents are also missing, presumably taken by the Specials.

David and Tally gather supplies from a secret cache before making the long trek to the city, intending to rescue everyone. At the Rusty Ruins, they recruit some uglies to cause a distraction, which helps them infiltrate Special Circumstances. They knock Dr. Cable unconscious and free the Smokies, only to learn that Shay has been turned pretty and Az is dead. The Smokies scatter, reconvening at the Rusty Ruins after several days.

Over the next 20 days, the Smokies recruit new uglies, spreading word about the lesions while Maddy works to develop a cure. Shay refuses to take it because of the potential health risks, and Maddy refuses to force her to do anything. Tally volunteers to be made pretty and take the cure. When David tries to stop her, she confesses her role in the destruction of the Smoke. David leaves, distressed, and Tally has Shay write a letter to her future self that outlines the situation. She and Shay leave for the city, where a warden catches them. The novel concludes as Tally asks to be made into a pretty.