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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 4: The Fault in Our Stars vs Temple Grandin


Temple Grandin
by Sy Montgomery
Houghton Mifflin
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green

Judged by
Deb Caletti



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……

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


  1. Eliana K. says:

    I believe it is unfair that The Fault in Our Stars was paired with such a good book first round, because The Fault in Our Stars is such a beautifully written book that it will crush most anything in its path. I am glad, however, that Caletti pointed out the great things about the Temple Grandin book, so it received the praise that was due. This is what I predicted, and I couldn’t agree with her decision more!

  2. No surprises here. Can I just say to RGN-your opinion is currently what I look forward to most each day. No offense intended to the judges and Jonathan! :)

  3. “He made a Nerdfighter out of me.” This happened me to me too, but it was with Looking for Alaska.

  4. I’m glad I made no predictions for this round. Of all the books I read last year, these two definitely made my top five. The books are so different that this match was like comparing apples to escalators. I wanted Sy Montgomery’s biography to win. But up against John Green’s story of love and life and hovering death? So unfair.

  5. TeenReader says:

    I liked the Fault in Our Stars a lot, but was hoping for Temple Grandin to pull out an upset. It’s such a quiet book, making it very different then the slick Fault, but I think it’s been largely ignored by awards comitees, trade journals, and the general public. Fault is indeed good, but I feel like it’s more focused on being smart and funny and dashing instead of being real. Hazel and Gus feel definitely like capital-C Characters in a novel, instead of real people that I could love and believe. (That being said, it is just as funny and smart and dashing as all the love would have you believe.) Certainly this wasn’t a surprise (Fault will likely win the whole battle), but I was hoping that the little non-fiction book that could would garner a win over the most beloved book of the year.

  6. While I tried to read all the Battle books, I avoided the Temple Grandin book. As the mother of an autistic adult son I am always reluctant to read about autistic characters because most of them don’t “get” it, especially about the pain. (And no, they are not all savants.) Deb, your description has convinced me to try this one. That said, I’m glad Fault has advanced.

  7. Meredith says:

    Argh!! I must be the only person in the world, but I did not like The Fault in Our Stars, and I was totally pulling for Temple Grandin. Sigh. Oh well. Hopefully Endangered can pull off the win next round.

  8. I’m 2 for 4. But the 2 I got right are the same two I wanted to win the second round battle, so my second round picks don’t need to change a bit.

    This judge followed The Format again. Commenter Laura laid out the Format accurately at Read Roger:

    When will they dare to tell us about the winning book first? But I did enjoy Deb Caletti’s detailed account of her thought processes. I maintain that these are all outstanding books, so I don’t fault the judges a bit for not coming up with grave flaws.

  9. TeenReader – You expressed some of my reservations about The Fault in Our Starts perfectly. Van Houten’s reappearance was a bit much – too out of character, sentimental, and predictable. I disagree with our judge’s statement, ” Someone Is Going to Die Only I Don’t Know Who.” I knew immediately who was going to die and what was gong to happen to each couple. I felt it was an okay book. Enjoyable while reading it but I felt that these kids were too perfectly quirky and that they were in fact the kind of characters of whom they make fun. Ultimately, it was not a book that stayed with me afterwards.

    Temple Grandin, on the other hand, made me aware of issues and had me wanting to find out more about both Ms. Grandin and her research and efforts. Just how you want a biography to affect you. I was hoping this book would at least make it to Round 2.

  10. There is one shared element in these books that both do masterfully. They show the reality of living with disability. When it comes to depicting the vast and varied spectrum of Autism,

    Montgomery does an accomplished job of showing its intricacies, frustrations and even its advantages. And she does it to a child audience without patronizing its subject or its readers.

    Green shows the weight of shouldering physical and terminal disability throughout daily life. My husband, who lives daily with disability, kept pausing as we read to ask how he (Green) knows what it is like.

    While TFIOS is not my favorite John Green, (I maintain that the road trip in PAPER TOWNS beats any written road trip, anywhere, and AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES beats just about any YA book ever.) it would be hard for me not pull for the obvious choice. I had my copy preordered months in advance, contributing to the capillary collapse in Green’s signing frenzy – green sharpie, sans Yeti and Hanklerfish. I’ve seen more Vlogbrothers videos than is seemly for a woman on my years. So yes, I’m content with Caletti’s choice.


  11. I have to admit, I’m glad Ms. Caletti didn’t let hype turn her against a worthy book.

  12. Meredith, you are not alone. No insult to Greene and his followings but I found this book completely ridiculous. You have parents with dying children and the parents just let them flit off to another continent to meet up with a quirky author who turns out to be a jerk. ALONE????? I don’t see any parent doing that. At least I would have been on the same plane with them. Maybe seated 3 rows back to give them privacy, but I simply can’t see parents agreeing to this. And I realize the parents are already grieving and want to give their kids some chance to enjoy life but the way both sets of parents just let the kids mouth off to them is again, ridiculous. This is one book I simply could not see from a teen point of view but from a parent’s point of view. I know that the parents are not the focus of the book, the kids are, but that does not mean that the parents can’t be believable as well. To be honest, I didn’t much care for the teens themselves. But it was the sheer nonsense of claiming kids could just wander off like that really got me. Seriously, think of what would have happened in real life. The kids would have been taken away from the parents and made wards of the state. I don’t think anyone would have tried to keep the kids from making the trip but with at least distant supervision, close enough that they could step in and get the kids to hospitals if necessary. I haven’t read the Temple Gandin book but I’m putting a hold on it ASAP.


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