skip to main contentThe University of Texas at Austin
  COE Home > Education Resources > BOOKS R4 TEENS > > BOOK REVIEW - Nothing But the Truth: a Documentary Novelskip page navigation

Page Navigation

author grade level Title
Books R4 Teens Book Review View Books By
contemporary fiction
historical fiction
short stories
multicultural voices
teaching ideas
National Council of Teachers of English
contacts and credits

Avi. (1993). Nothing But the Truth: A Documentary Novel. New York: HarperCollins. 212 pp.

Grade Level: 6-12

Genre: contemporary fiction

Summary and Critique

    Nothing But the Truth is a documentary novel laying out the evidence of how one student's penchant to hum along with the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner" resulted in national media coverage, culminating in the professional demise of a well-meaning English teacher. Phillip Malloy likes to hum as the national anthem is played over the school's intercom system each morning. Despite the English teacher's repeated requests for him to stop, Phillip continues until he is suspended. His parents challenge the school, and chaos ensues. Phillip is struggling to achieve status in sports and assert his individuality in the classroom. He is a freshman—invincible and careless. Philip is testing authority and self-reliance while exploring his own independence. More importantly, he is unaware of the eventual consequences of his actions to himself and others. A major theme of this book is truth and the search for complete truth amongst the multiple versions of the same incident.

    Because of its captivating documentary format, Nothing But the Truth is suitable for several grades. It includes themes and issues that are pertinent to students'lives. With a few clever lesson plans, this book can be taught effectively in most secondary language arts classrooms.


    Newbery Honor Award

Themes, Topics, Sub-Genres


    Challenges and Triumphs

    The Individual vs. Society

Author Information

    Avi is the author of multiple highly acclaimed novels including The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Poppy. "Avi" is a pen name given by his twin sister when they were children; he chooses not to disclose he real name.

For more information on Avi:

Media Connections


    Amelie. (2001) Charming Amelie helps a janitor piece together the evidence he has been collecting for months to solve his mystery. On another note, Amelie endears herself to the viewer by enacting her own laws of justice around her in order to help others. French film, subtitles

    Finding Forrester. (2000) Shows a mentoring relationship. (In contrast to Phillip Malloy's attitude towards his would-be champion Miss Narwin.)

    Mr. Holland's Opus. (1995) A teacher, burned out, is able to revive his old passion for teaching and inspire students.

    My Cousin Vinny. (1992) A truly enjoyable courtroom movie. A couple of adventure-seeking students find themselves defendants to a crime. Desperate, one calls his New Yorker cousin to represent them. The case unfolds and unexpected expert puts relevant"evidence" forth, and justice is brought in a corrupt legal system.

    Pay It Forward. (2000) A student gains national news coverage and fame by the simple act of positively affecting the lives of others.

    Rudy. (1993) An athlete struggles to overcome failure in order to realize his dreams.


    "Justice and Independence '85." Performed by John Cougar Mellencamp, from Scarecrow. Polygram, 1990.

    "I Fought the Law and the Law Won." Performed by the Bobby Fuller Four, from I Fought the Law and Other Hits. Rhino Flashback Records.

    "Rules & Regulations." Performed by Public Image Limited, from Happy? Griffin, 1995.

    "Tell the Truth." Performed by Otis Redding, from Dreams to Remember: The Otis Redding Anthology. Rhino Records, 1998.


    7th Heaven. (The WB) Minister and wife have 7 children. Each episode centers around scrapes and proud moments in their lives.

    Boston Public. (Fox) Attempts to hit the hard and tough issues in high schools. Though a bit over the top, some of the episodes have a few minutes of exchange between students and teachers covering themes of authority, loyalties, rebellion, etc.

    The Simpsons. (Fox) Covers all the real issues in small town life. "Bootlegger" shows Homer falling victim to an old, silly law and nearly being punished by catapulting. Then the scribe reads just seconds before the lever is released that the law was repealed within a year of its existence. This is a fun episode to open a discussion of real, honest-to-goodness loony laws in effect across the U.S. and the world.

Online Resources

Related Texts

    Danziger, Paula. (1989). Everyone Else's Parents Said Yes. New York: Delacorte Press. 115pp. Matthew Martin has a birthday coming up, but his best friend has upstaged him. Matthew goes full steam ahead into competition with his best friend. Themes: Authority of parents; independence of child. This book also tells the story using lists, drawings of cards, memos, etc.

    Hawthorn, Nathaniel. (1965). The Scarlet Letter. Bantam. 256pp. Hester Prynne and Peg Narwin have something in common. They are both called upon the scaffold to take the public punishment of a sin in which others participated.

    Hinton, S.E. (1967). The Outsiders. New York: Viking. 192pp. The book Phillip Malloy was reading when the humming fiasco started. After witnessing his best friend kill a wealthy teenager, Ponyboy Curtis, a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks, learns the true meanings of family, friendship, and bravery. Themes: Independence; crime-murder; justice; truth. Check out Sodapop's letter to Ponyboy in Chapter 5 and the hearing in Chapter 12.

    Hoffus, Stephen. (1993). Winners and Losers. New York: Simon & Schuster. 164pp. Daryl, the star runner of the track team collapses. His best friend Curt is shocked to learn Daryl has a weak heart. When the coach—Daryl's father—begins priming Curt for the #1 spot, Curt begins working himself to a frenzy to stay on top. Themes: Winners-Losers; friends – betrayal.

    Kiesel, Stanley. (1980). The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids. New York: Dutton. 214pp. Hilarious account of the kids declaring war on their teachers.

    Moore, Emily. (1988). Whose Side Are You On? New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. 133pp. Barbara fails math and has to be tutored by the pest! But she learns to like T.J.; then he disappears and Barbara finds out that he has been sent to a youth center. Themes: Friendship; leaving school.

Teaching Ideas

    (1)"The [___] Grade Class Legislature is Now in Session." Admittedly, some laws are just plain bad. It is our job today to eradicate such laws from our books and amend salvageable laws so they are purposeful. Goal: Students will work in groups of 5-6 and scrutinize the rule which Phillip broke ("stand at respectful, silent attention"). Students will defend, amend or rescind the rule.

    Fig. 2




    Analysis of Rule










    Within each group, students will be assigned roles of students, teachers, administrators, parents and board members to argue for or against changing rules. They must come to a mutually acceptable solution.

    In order to broaden understanding of why laws exist, an in-class Internet exercise will be conducted to review some silly laws and why they exist, and whether they are still effective. As time permits, students can also play around with proposing changes to some of the "real" dumb laws they discover. A similar graphic organizer can be devised for the silly laws.

    For older students, reading and discussion of corollary texts listed in this document, such as "Civil Disobedience," will enhance critical thinking skills.

    When each panel has made a decision about the law, a general session will be held so that groups will have the opportunity to present their arguments to the class and exercise their power of persuasion. This lesson would be idea for a cross-disciplined Language Arts/Social Studies or Government class.

    (2) "Point of View – Does Anyone Have the Whole Truth?" When we study literature and in preparation for writing, we often review"point of view." In Nothing But the Truth, point of view switches with each character. Each has his perspective, but as we learned, none of the characters see quite eye-to-eye. The author does not disclose the thoughts of one character to another character, which creates a tense story and frustrating state of affairs for his readers.

    Goal: Students will review the various points of view (omnipotent; limited omnipotent; first person; and objective-dramatic) and discuss their opinions as to why Avi chose to be the point(s) of view he did.

    Fig. 3




      a. Each student is assigned to assume the role of a character. With that character's set of facts, write for 3-5 minutes about the thoughts and motives of another character.

      b. Then students exchange papers. Now they will switch to the new character and assume another perspective.

      c. After three rotations, each student will summarize what"new" information was learned.

      d. In small groups, students will sketch on a pie graph what portion of knowledge each character in the story has. Divide the graph and list a few items describing why each has as big or as small a portion of knowledge. Is the knowledge mostly evenly spread out?

      e. Homework: Students will write a 1-2 page entry into Avi's documentary novel for the character they were originally assigned.

    (3)"Order in the Court!" Courtroom scenes are often entertaining to watch in movies and fun to enact in class. Before reading chapters 17, 18 and 19, a trial will be held. Two to three days before the trial is to be held, students will not read any further in the text, but will review the facts and prepare their arguments.

    Goal: Students will use analytical and rhetorical knowledge to reconstruct, organize, and solve the "crime."

      a. The class will draw for characters. Be sure to leave some jurors and a judge (or the teacher can be the judge in a smaller class.

      b. All characters know ONLY what they know in their story. A bailiff can be appointed to make sure no one oversteps his knowledge.

      c. Let the students spend a day and come up with a verdict and assign awards/punishments as they think appropriate.

      d. On the following day, read the concluding three chapters and let them see how close or far they were from the actual ending.

(Review written by Mari Beth Tackett and edited by Jennifer E. Moore)