There’s identifying with a work of children’s fiction and then there’s wondering if the author of the work has somehow discovered time travel and was able to observe your younger self. Such were my feelings upon picking up and reading Hound Dog True, the lastest from A Crooked Kind of Perfect’s Linda Urban. I don’t want to cast aspersions on Ms. Urban, and if she wants to use her highly developed time travel technology to spy upon my elementary years that is her business. Of course I appreciate that she changed the names in this book to protect the innocent (which is to say, me). It occurs to me now that there may be a chance that Ms. Urban wrote this book with another child in mind. Indeed, after having finished the title I can see sheer hoards of kids who were exactly like me when they were young picking up this book and finding in its heroine Mattie a kindred spirit. It won’t be hard for them to do. She’s the underdog’s underdog.
She has it all worked out, you see. The plan is perfect. It can’t possibly fail. After traveling from place to place with her mother for years, Mattie and mom have finally moved in with mom’s brother. Uncle Potluck is exactly the kind of uncle you’d want to have around too. He tells great stories, and talks to the moon, and best of all he lets Mattie tag along as he fixes up the local elementary school for the coming year. In fear of the kids in her new class, Mattie has determined that if she’s a good enough assistant to Uncle Potluck in the summer then she’ll be able to assist him over her lunch and recess period every school day and avoid her compatriots. She’s sure she’ll be able to convince him, but when she meets the niece of her new next door neighbor, Mattie starts discovering that maybe other kids aren’t entirely frightening.
There are books for kids out there where the protagonist is supposed to be shy. They almost never ring true. Sure, the kid will act hesitant to do one thing or another, but eventually they’ll have these moments where they go out of their way to be brave and they lose me. I was a shy kid. I understand the crippling fear a person can feel when they encounter a potentially hostile fellow student. And Linda Urban gets all of that. She gets how you can worry about being babyish one moment and then fall into old habits the next. She gets how a person could view lunch and recess as “the lawless times” when the safety of adults lessens and kids are allowed to pick on one another openly. It doesn’t take much to instill in a child a fear of their fellow man. Hound Dog True understands.
One remarkable aspect of the book is the fact that Urban manages to create a passive protagonist that doesn’t drive you up the wall. Generally when a writer conjures up a character that is afraid of basic human interactions the reader’s response is a uncontrollable urge to shake the hero for all they’re worth. You don’t feel that way with Mattie, though. This is remarkable when you realize that it’s when Mattie attempts to be proactive that she gets herself in the biggest messes. Her plan to become a janitorial assistant is flawed from the start and her attempts to help her uncle fail in a magnificently overblown fashion. Rather than annoy the reader, though, these moments just heighten your sympathy for poor Mattie. You wouldn’t want to be her, and a whole slew of kids are.
This is a silly way of looking at it, but I sort of saw this book as a middle grade version of that old Caldecott winning picture book Officer Buckle and Gloria. There’s something about the constant use of rules that reminds me of it. Maybe the gentle humor does too. Certainly the authenticity of the book lets it stand apart from the pack. It’s not a long book by any stretch. Just a scant 176 pages, making it the perfect length for the kids that’ll need it most. Which is to say, the ones teetering between the “babyish” and the “grown-up”. Urban’s writing style can be summed up in one word: likeable. And this is a supremely likeable book. A great new Urban title that won’t disappoint her already existing fans and may lure in new ones.
On shelves September 20th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.