by Sy Montgomery
|The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green
I had a moment of panic after hearing which books I’d be judging. While I wasn’t familiar with the first book, Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World, by Sy Montgomery, you’d have to have been orbiting space for the last year not to know about the second, The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. Maybe you’ve heard of him? On a little thing called YouTube? Or, The New York Times bestseller list? Wait. What about CARNEGIE HALL? His fifty gajillion fans even go by their own cult-following nickname: Nerdfighters. Laurie Halse Anderson called Mr. Green, “A holy man.” I may have forgotten to mention all of those shiny medals that grace his covers.
Now, don’t hit me with your book lights, but I have never read John Green. The idea of reading him now with the intent to judge made me honestly nervous. Who was I to do such a thing? As well, Nerdfighters are, let’s just say, an ardent group. And what about the underdog, Temple Grandin? I love an underdog! Still, this would be like the fight between… Well, I was going to give a sports metaphor, but I know nothing about sports.
The point is this: one more accolade for The Fault in Our Stars by John Green would be akin to giving a birthday cake to a birthday cake.
With those thoughts in mind, I began reading Temple Grandin. It’s a slim but gorgeously designed volume about the life and work of Dr. Temple Grandin, professor and scientist, whose autism contributed to her brilliant and revolutionary solutions for the cruelty-free treatment of livestock. Interspersed throughout the text are photos, Temple’s own hand-drawn designs for cattle facilities, and torn-notebook pages of side articles filled with facts about autism, the brain, farming, and, my favorite, an article titled, “The Abnormality of Genius.” Lush full-page images of up-close cowhide bookend the story, bringing the animals themselves right to the reader in a way that’s smart and downright cow-cool. You want to stroke the pages. (I admit it. I stroked.)
The real power, though, is in Temple’s story itself. The book follows her through her childhood (with a father that wanted to put her in a mental hospital, and a mother who was her strongest and most steadfast advocate throughout her life), all the way to her inspirational success and pioneering work in the ethical treatment of animals. In between, we learn about her frustrating and traumatic school years, where she was bullied for her oddness, and discover how animals saved her, when as a teen on her aunt’s cattle ranch, she began experimenting with seeing the world as cattle do. Observing their behavior in the cattle chute, Temple realized she identified with their fear, skittishness and sensitivity. She also identified with their plight – same as was once true of Temple herself, they lacked the language to communicate that fear and pain. Giving animals a voice, a voice based her own, personal experience and the empathy gained from it, would become her life’s work.
Temple Grandin not only furthered my understanding of what autism is, but how it feels -the assault of the real world on the senses, the actual pain of noise and touch, the disconnect of processing the world through images rather than language. But her story brings home even larger themes: the way the right, supportive people at the right time can change your life; the way our personal challenges can bring the great gift of empathy to others; and most of all, the critical message that Odd is Powerful.
Next came The Fault in Our Stars. Aside from the above-mentioned worries, I had one more: the plot. It is my general policy to avoid “dying books” like the plague. The Fault in Our Stars, in case you have been orbiting space, is about two kids with cancer who fall in love. From the first crack of the cover, I had to force down The Perfect Storm sense of doom that Someone Is Going to Die Only I Don’t Know Who. My plan was to stay aloof – I didn’t want to love anyone lest I lose them. But, damn you, John Green, I let my guard down. You made me do it. I got to know Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters and the raw and tender Isaac, all Cancer Kids. I was swept right up into their quippy, fast-draw dialogue. Things were funny and fresh and smart. Love was in the air.
And then, something happened. I care about books too much to tell you what, but it’s enough to say that right around page one hundred, things got serious. Things got real. Really real. It was as if I was walking along on the ocean floor, tra la la, and then the floor fell away. I had to set the book down and catch my breath. I was a little afraid to pick it up again. It was night. I was in bed. I said to my husband, “Well, he did it.”
“What?” Husband said.
“He made a Nerdfighter out of me.”
What I found wonderful about the book was not necessarily what I’ve sometimes heard it praised for – the philosophical reflections and the pull-no-punches intellectual heft. Yeah, I liked the snap-crack dialogue, sure, but it wasn’t even that. What worked for me as a writer, but even more as a reader, were the truths of the small moments. The off-by-a-second laughter of two people watching the same movie on an airplane. The way the end of a book can make you mad. The sadness of an old swing set.
The Fault in Our Stars and Temple Grandin actually had a lot in common, for two such unlikely-paired books. They both dealt with the beauty of the underdog, and the triumph in the struggle at life’s toughest, outermost edges. Both books help us better understand the misunderstood. And they both show us what it means to fight. But while Temple Grandin herself is the underdog with the real-life victory (the ultimate win in my – or any – book), I am a novelist. I love a perfect sentence and a just-right image. I love a moment on the page that makes you say, “Ahh.” And so… Let there be birthday cake upon birthday cake. Balloons and confetti, too.
The winner: The Fault in Our Stars
— Deb Caletti
And the Winner of this match is……
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS
Unlike Deb, I have read—and enjoyed—all of John Green’s books. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS has the ability to make a deep run in this tournament, but at some point I hope that our judges will weigh in on the success of Van Houten’s reappearance at the end of the novel—as that point seemed to dominate the conversation on the Printz blog. I’m sure most people would pick THE FAULT IN OUR STARS over TEMPLE GRANDIN, and I might ultimately do so as well, but it would not be an easy decision for me because those things that Deb loved so much about Green’s book—perfect sentences, just-right images, and “Ahhh!” moments—I also found abundantly in Montgomery’s book. Can the scientific community rally around this book—as they did a couple of years ago with THE FROG SCIENTIST—and make this our Undead winner?
— Commentator Jonathan Hunt
Again! Another absolutely one-sided match.
But The Fault in Our Stars was, indeed, breathtaking. Sudden moments of emotion, both funny and sad, would jump out at you and sometimes take away all sense of security. Characters so lively leave you lost. Ms. Caletti is right; the philosophical musing is merely a nice side-affect. What book with such grave occurrences would not have that? And what book would have joy and sorrow seemingly embodied in a few hundred pages?
Again, though, I don’t think Temple Grandin gets the credit it’s due. While, as Ms. Caletti said, Temple Grandin is a completely amazing person, the uniqueness of the book is more in the way Montgomery makes Temple’s story accessible and important. She leads the reader along, slowly, deliberately, all along revealing what Temple did to make slaughterhouses humane; what autism is and how difference in the human brain is not only normal, but good; how one can come to terms with oneself and others and embrace the world. It is these facts that make us love Temple Grandin, and this book is especially important as it allows younger readers an opportunity to view some necessary facts in life. Temple Grandin is cutely done and clear, an excellent non-fiction book.
It is so unfair that The Fault in Our Stars has to win this match, but nevertheless, it’s spectacular.
— Kid Commentator RGN