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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 1: All the Truth That’s In Me vs The Animal Book

JUDGE – VAUNDA NELSON

All The Truth That’s In Me
by Julie Berry
Viking/Penguin
The Animal Book
by Steve Jenkins
Houghton Mifflin

When I learned I had to choose between Steve Jenkins’ nonfiction The Animal Book and Julie Berry’s teen novel, All the Truth That’s In Me, I winced. It’s challenging enough to compare two strong pieces of fiction, but to pick a winner between these very different genres? How mean can you be, SLJ?

To my delight, as I sat down to consider these contenders, I found similarities I hadn’t expected.

Steve Jenkins says, “The story of life on earth is one of constant destruction, renewal and change.” So, too, in Julie Berry’s fictional world: lives and relationships are destroyed, rebuilt and changed forever. Both books are filled with mystery, romance, and survival—the drama of predator and prey.

Jenkins creates a richly textured compilation of animal lore vividly illustrated with his signature cut- and torn-paper collages, some borrowed from previous works, incorporated seamlessly into this new volume. His meticulous work awes me. Information and art meld stunningly as Jenkins shares hundreds of wonders of the natural world. This book is packed, but not so densely as to overwhelm young readers. It welcomes them with beetles that can run as fast as a man, spiders bigger than human hands, and sea sponges that live 2300 years. Although The Animal Book can be browsed, I read it from cover to cover, stopping numerous times to delve into the index, or to share some remarkable fact with my husband.

I noticed a couple of minor errors in the index and eyes chart, and Jenkins sometimes left me with questions unanswered, but these did not diminish my admiration or enjoyment of his notable achievement.

What immediately drew me into Berry’s fictional world was the internal monologue of Judith Finch. I love Berry’s use of short chapters, sometimes only a sentence or two, and admire her use of language — simple, lyrical, poetic, melancholic, full of longing — as Judith moves in and out of her past and her current grim life.

As I read All the Truth That’s In Me, I couldn’t escape echoes of Jenkins’ animal world. Judith’s role as outcast-with-no-voice becomes defensive coloration, a cloak of camouflage, protection from any expectation to tell what she knows (at least until she’s good and ready).

Survival is a key theme for Berry — literally and emotionally. People die, are threatened with violence, or shamed. Judith walks a fine line between hope and despair. She is physically maimed and regarded as easy prey by teacher Rupert Gillis. No romance there, but plenty when it comes to Lucas Whiting who is emotionally present in every scene. Judith and Lucas move through a kind of mating dance, trusting and distrusting, coming together, then moving apart, studying, evaluating each other and the environment in which they live.

Jenkins describes how crows join forces to repel hawks that threaten their babies, a cooperative technique called “mobbing.” Roswell villagers exhibit this nest-protecting behavior in their entrapment of Lucas and at the trial, not realizing the actual hawk, Abijah Pratt, is among them, “hiding in plain sight” (as Jenkins says), camouflaged as a parent mourning his murdered daughter.

Berry slowly and skillfully provides the pieces of the puzzle that ultimately lead to a satisfying end.

However, Goody Pruett seems a bit stereotypic as the all-knowing town gadfly, and I guessed fairly early on what Abijah Pratt was about. I also had a hard time accepting that Lucas might have believed (even for a moment) Rupert Gillis’ lies about Judith. Still, this is a lovely and powerful novel.

That said, I must give my vote to the book whose drama and intrigue keeps drawing me back:  The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest — and Most Surprising — Animals on Earth.

— Vaunda Nelson

One for Team Nonfiction! The truth can truly be wondrous, and The Animal Book is the type of book that I would have loved when I was younger, filled which wonder at the natural world: it’s real! What’s better for a kid than that? (Yes, I did show it to my baby brother.) It’s these types of books that I’m rooting for this year, not the complicated, “grown-up” ones that might be confusing but the ones that are full of heart. If anything’s complicated, the truth is, and it’s scary, too, but All the Truth That’s In Me, for me, at least, was too complicated, and just didn’t quite work. Now, Rose Under Fire is a different story, but that’s up against A Thing About Luck…Let the battle begin!

– Kid Commentator RGN

THE WINNER OF ROUND 1 MATCH 1:

THE ANIMAL BOOK

Comments

  1. One round down, and I’m 0 for 1. I really liked both of these books, but they weren’t my favorites in the match. My eldest daughter would have adored The Animal Book when she was in elementary school and I have some students who are going to really like it. I must admit that when I started All the Truth That’s in Me, my first thought was “Oh no, not another Chime” but I was happy to find out that wasn’t the case.

    I also love that Vaunda Nelson’s commentary was not completely glowing of both books — some critical analysis is nice to read.

  2. I’m not off to a very good start here! Though as I had a fairly major issue with All The Truth That’s In Me, I can’t say I’m sorry to see it out in Round One.

    • Brandy, I just read your review and agree that the lack of setting details was a problem in All the Truth. I had read a couple of reviews before reading it so began with the idea of Puritan colonial times in mind, otherwise the vagueness would have been even more problematic. Then the whole “Homelanders” bit made me wonder too much about where/when this was all happening.
      That said, I eventually grew to love the story and was able to put my misgivings aside. But I’ve always loved Steve Jenkins’ work and find it underrecognized (that’s probably not a word) by award committees. I’m glad to see it move forward here.

      • Ceane,

        I went into it knowing nothing about the setting because I tend to avoid reviews of books I plan to read eventually and it was incredibly jarring to not have any sort of sense of place. And the questions that were raised in my mind about where/when the story was and the structure of the greater world kept throwing me out of the story. I know that has worked for a lot of readers but it completely ruined the whole experience for me. It may have been different had I been prepared, but I don’t know. There’s a reason I avoid reviews of books I want to read though. I like knowing my thoughts and reactions are entirely my own on a first read through.

  3. The Animal book is one of the two that I haven’t read yet, so I shouldn’t say that I didn’t want it to win, but since All the Truth That’s In Me was my favorite of the 14 books I did read, I am feeling kinda sad right now. Still, it’s a good by Vaunda Nelson, and it’s definitely made me even more eager to read the Animal Book if it ever comes in at the library.

  4. Ms. Nelson has to have been an English major. Those are some impressive comparison skills. (I cannot decide whether to WOOT for the broadly appealing Animal Book or mourn for poor All the Truth, so I’ll leave it at that.)

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    While I appreciated both books, ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME dragged a bit in the middle for me, while THE ANIMAL BOOK held my interest throughout. I didn’t read them back to back like Vaunda did, and what I appreciate about her analysis is the comparison and contrast of what, on the surface, seems to be two very dissimilar books.

  6. Okay, I’m not starting off well. Though I’m such a big fan of Steve Jenkins’ work, in general, I can’t *really* be sad his book is doing well. But I thought All the Truth That’s in Me was wonderful. Oh well. At least my Undead vote wasn’t wasted! (I ended up giving it to All the Truth That’s in Me, though I kind of doubt it got enough votes. But at least it’s not going to end up in the final round anyway!)

  7. Battle Commander Battle Commander says:

    Just to recap our first round of Mock 2014 predictions — 32 people (out of 107) predicted the win for The Animal Book.

  8. Like so many of these rounds my allegiance had equal weight with these two books. Both held high marks for originality. I found the not quite concrete setting of ATTTIM fascinating and perfectly suited to the story and the second person narration intriguing and captivating. I did weary of Lucas’s obtuseness and at times wished Judith would kick him to the curb. Loved Vaunda’s use of gadfly. (must insert it into sentence before the end of day)

    This past summer I was given the charge to host Steven Jenkins and his wife and son at a local conference. He is a man who weighs thoughts and ideas like a curator oversees a valuable collection. He has added to children’s lit a breadth of work which would leave vast echoing holes if it were to disappear. To have THE ANIMAL BOOK is a summation and more of what has come before. My only disappointment was seeing the illustrations from ACTUAL SIZE crammed onto smaller pages. I came to understand why so many illustrators resist having their books digitized.

    Great commentary by Nelson. Love the illustrations!

  9. Sam Bloom says:

    Wow, Vaunda – that was some analysis! The rest of the judges have a tough act to follow! Also, go team nonfiction!

    Pretty excited about tomorrow’s match-up: I’m of the opinion that Boxers&Saints has been overhyped, but I LOVED Corner of White.

  10. When I was setting up the March Madness tournament in class after class two weeks ago, I used this first match as an example. Alphabetical order had thrown a teenage novel against a children’s nonfiction picture book. To my teens’ mind (and mine, since I hadn’t read either book) it was no contest–until I told them the judge was the author of nonfiction children’s books. I remember one kid said, “I bet they did that on purpose.” I just counted up the predictions in our mock match, and 27 went with The Animal Book vs. 38 who chose All the Truth.

  11. Steffaney Smith says:

    Woot-woot for Jenkins. Hoping The Animal Book will prevail a few more battles! (Is this not the perfect gift book for any elementary-aged child??)

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