Friday, July 27, 2012

2013 Contenders: Temple Grandin, by Sy Montgomery

Temple Grandin is a fascinating woman. As Sy Montgomery points out, she is the only person to have been honored by both PETA and the Meat Industry. Her insights into the inner lives of livestock have revolutionized practices in the cattle industry, from feed lots to slaughterhouses. And she has accomplished all of it while struggling with moderate to severe autism - a condition that was even more poorly understood when Grandin was a child than it is now.

Montgomery's account of Grandin's life is intensely readable. The lively anecdotes and firsthand quotes lend it an appealing sense of immediacy, and help to paint a nuanced portrait of a complex personality. Above all, the subject of autism is treated thoughtfully. Grandin has made it quite clear that she feels her autism is a gift that allows her to see the world in a special way. Growing up with autism in the 1950's, however, she also encountered a great deal of cruelty and misunderstanding. Montgomery does an excellent job of explaining both the blessings and challenges of living with autism. That deviation from the typical "overcoming obstacles" story arc elevates this biography well above the typical disability narrative.

Montgomery also treats the livestock industry fairly. A vegetarian herself, she unflinchingly reports the cruel practices that take place in some farms and processing plants. She is equally quick, however, to acknowledge and applaud those who have made significant improvements by following Grandin's guidelines. The back matter includes an excellent list of resources on both autism and animal welfare for those who wish to do further research, as well as "Temple's Advice for Kids on the Spectrum." 

The book's one real weak point is its organization. The lack of a table of contents is disorienting, and since the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time, the inclusion of dates would have been helpful.

Newbery? Heck, I don't know. I will openly admit that I have very little sense of what makes a good informational Newbery winner, but I suspect this isn't it. In her five-star Goodreads review, Nina Lindsay notes that there's "nothing flashy about this book," and I think that's worth noting. Though it excels in character development, I think it's too stylistically plain-spoken to catch the committee's attention. 

Published in April through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


  1. Really? I hope it does catch their attention. I think the plain-spokenness is one of its strengths.

  2. You may be right! I'm handicapped by never having been on the committee. I feel like my lit crit background serves me well for fiction, but I have a hard time imagining the nonfiction discussions.

  3. I think that is one of the hardest things the committee has to work with: how to compare a book like this one with something as stylistically different as Polly Horvath's Mr and Mrs Bunny. At the beginning of the discussion the books may be segregated based on genre, but by the end everything is thrown into the same pot, and at that point it comes down to which book meets the criteria better. For my money, I think Temple Grandin is one of the top 2 or 3 books this year based on the criteria (esp Devt. of Character and Presentation of Info). I think it takes real skill to be as plain-spoken as Montgomery is here... if it doesn't work, it is going to be unreadable, but as you said yourself, Rachel, this book is hugely readable. I'll be rooting for this one come January 28!