In just one week, fifth grader Mattie Breen, custodial apprentice and secret storyteller, will face the moment she always dreads: introducing herself in front of her classmates in yet another new school.
This time, as she helps her Uncle Potluck, director of custodial arts at Mitchell P. Anderson Elementary School, prepare for the opening of school, Mattie stands in the empty classroom and wonders what it will be like. Is it possible that, for once, she can find words to say that will magically bring her friends? Can she say something that will make her more than “that shy girl?”
Mattie is the engaging young heroine of Linda Urban’s lyrical new novel for young readers, Hound Dog True. Urban brings Mattie’s emotions to life so perceptively it’s natural to wonder if the author herself was shy as a child, or if, like Mattie, she had the experience of being teased about her writing.
“It is risky to be earnest. It is risky to show that you care. Irony is like wearing bubble wrap.”
“When I was a kid, I wrote all the time—joyfully and fearlessly,” Urban remembers during a call to her home in Vermont. “Then in seventh grade, we were given an assignment to write about Christmas Eve. I wrote a piece that was filled with memory and detail—I really put my heart into it. We were asked to read our pieces aloud and I did, and a boy in my class said that one of the words I used was weird. And that I was weird for having used it.”
The incident had an effect on the direction Urban took. She stopped writing fiction and went on to study advertising and journalism in college. Eventually she became a bookseller at an independent bookstore in Pasadena, California, before moving to Vermont with her family seven years ago.
But as for writing fiction herself?
“Too risky. Too scary,” the author says.
In fact, Urban didn’t begin writing fiction again until age 37, when she started reading picture books to her baby daughter. She began getting up early (a writing habit she continues now as the mother of a nine- and seven-year-old), and didn’t even admit to her husband for months that she was trying her hand at writing children’s literature.
Urban’s first novel for children, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, published in 2007, tells the story of a girl who dreams of getting a baby grand piano but gets an organ instead. The book received many accolades, including being named a selection of the Junior Library Guild. In 2009 Urban published a picture book, Mouse Was Mad, illustrated by Henry Cole. This amusing story for preschoolers about an angry mouse who tries to handle his emotions was also praised by reviewers.
Now, with three books to her credit and another novel in the works, Urban is an advocate for young writers like Mattie. “My own memories of writing that Christmas piece in seventh grade and the reaction I got from my classmates had a little to do with the emotional core of Hound Dog True and Mattie’s fear about sharing her writing,” she says.
“I do a lot of school visits and hear from young writers who are afraid to tell people they write. It’s common, that fear. Not just of sharing writing, but of risking. It is risky to show how much you care about the things you do or try. I think that is why we live in such an ironic age. It is risky to be earnest. It is risky to show that you care. Irony is like wearing bubble wrap.”
In Hound Dog True, Mattie learns a lot about what it means to take risks—not just in showing her writing to others, but in taking the first small steps toward friendship with another girl, Quincy Sweet, who, like Mattie, must find her own way amid the expectations of others. Having a real, intimate friend—a friend you can be honest with—is scary for Mattie, but as her new principal tells her, “You can’t have brave without scared.”
Urban is an acute observer of these small steps toward bravery, independence and friendship. An inveterate reader herself (her entire household dedicates Tuesday evenings to “Read at the Table Night,” where kids and parents bring a book to a finger-food dinner), Urban loves “heart and honesty and humor. I love brilliant turns of phrase that never threaten to hijack the story. I love people who understand the underside of kids, but maintain an outlook that is hopeful and generous.
“I tend to write about moments and choices that seem small to outsiders but are huge to the people experiencing them,” Urban continues. “In this book, I hoped to show how hard those small, brave, risky steps can be—and also how rewarding.”
And so, when Mattie Breen does find herself standing in front of her new fifth grade classmates on the first day of school, readers will be pulling for her to speak up and declare who she is—a girl who writes stories.