Hound Dog True by Linda Urban is the story of Mattie Breen, a girl who has started over again at new schools so often that she’s gotten used to it. Well, she’s gotten used to it if that means worrying herself sick over it, to the point she loses sleep. This time is different, though: she and her mother have moved back to her mother’s childhood home to live with her Uncle Potluck. Uncle Potluck happens to be the janitor of the school Mattie will attend, so she hatches a plot: she will prove herself to be so indispensible to Uncle Potluck in his summertime janitorial duties that she will become his Custodial Apprentice during the school year, getting her out of the usual anxiety-inducing school situations: “lunch or recess or be[ing] with whatever wild kids might be at Mitchell P. Anderson Elementary” (15). Mattie writes everything she learns about custodianship down in her notebook entitled “Custodial Wisdom.” Actually, it’s Mattie’s habit of writing stories that pushed her past the point of mere shyness at school to the point of real anxiety and dread of it. Well, it was the meanness of a classmate of hers back in fourth grade who found her writing notebook and opened it and tried to read one of her stories. The girl, Star, honed in on one word she saw in a story before she destroyed the notebook. She used that word to torment Mattie: ogre. Star would whisper the word ogre (she pronounced it og-ree) to Mattie every time she could. Here’s how Mattie remembers that day:
“Og-ree,” Star said, and it became a magic word. Og-ree. Og-ree. Og-ree. Star grew bigger and bigger until she touched the ceiling and filled the coatroom, and Mattie knew Star could swallow her whole. (22)
Mattie’s situation is complicated by a few things, one of which is a girl, Quincy Sweet, whose aunt lives next door. Quincy is just a bit older than Mattie and she is visiting her aunt for the summer. Everyone expects Quincy and Mattie to be friends, but there’s a problem: Mattie doesn’t really know how to make a friend; she’d really just rather be left alone. Unlike Mattie, Quincy isn’t a wilting flower; she’s large and in charge of her situation, or so it seems. Mattie notices this about Quincy: “Quincy had a way of talking–flat and dull, like stones dropping plunk, plunk in a puddle. Matter-of-fact, Mama called it.” Despite Mattie’s trepidation, a wobbly sort of friendship develops between the two girls, and they find out they do have a few things in common. Through her friendship and the realization that her talent, writing, is a great strength, Mattie finally realizes she has the fortitude to face fifth grade in yet another new classroom.
Hound Dog True is a quiet book. By that I mean that not a whole lot really happens in the book, and in this case, the narrator’s voice itself is quiet. Much of this story is internal, inside Mattie’s head. Urban has a great ability to encapsulate Mattie’s anxiety and feelings of marginalization at school in small but powerful ways.
Mattie scooted around [Uncle Potluck] to open the cafeteria door. It was huge, the cafeteria was, with yellow tables jack-knifed in half and pushed against the walls. Fifteen yellow tables. Maybe thirty seats each.
is four hundred fifty, Mattie writes in her notebook.
Four hundred and fifty seats. Seems like that would be enough so everybody has a place, but Mattie knows different. Knows there can be a thousand seats and still you might not find the place you belong. (37)
I really hate the fact that these stories need to be told–that some situations for some children are painful. I remember my own middle school years, and I had a largely painful school experience. While I was never bullied like Mattie, I remember feeling odd and like I didn’t fit in. Maybe that’s just a part of growing up. Linda Urban has written a memorable and sensitively written story about finding one’s place in the world. This is just the sort of book that adults want kids to read and like, and while I’m not an exception to that, I often wonder if such short, quiet stories have the same appeal for the actual kids who read them as they do for the adults who recommend them. Either way, it’s a good and well written story, and I give it a Highly Recommended. (Harcourt, 2011)
This book has been nominated for a Cybils in the middle grade fiction category.
Reviews elsewhere and related links:
- Linda Urban’s website
- Linda Urban’s blog
- Kate Messner’s review (she nominted the book)
- review at Fizzwhizzing Flushbunker (Cybils middle grade panelist)
- short review at Ms. Yingling Reads (Cybils middle grade panelist)
- review at My Brain on Books