I want to talk about Linda Urban’s writing.I have it on my list to talk about her writing, too!
After rereading Hound Dog True, I am going to have to say that I think that it is the best written book of 2011. It might not be my favorite, although it is close.
It feels like Linda put tremendous effort into writing each and every word in this book. I cannot find a wasted: paragraph, sentence, or word anywhere in the book. It is as close to perfect as I have read in a long time.
One thing that I am going to be sure to point out to my student when I read this book aloud is going to be Linda’s use of specific actions in her writing. I often talk with my students about using specific actions in their writing, and I model it constantly, but Linda Urban is a master. The actions of her characters, often subtle, paint an amazing picture.
An example of what I’m talking about (I believe you call it snatch of text on your blog):
It is just dark enough outside for Mattie to see her reflection in the window. She tries smiling at it. Big smiles. Little Smiles. Stretched-tight smiles like Quincy wears. Makes her looked worried, that last one. Mattie shifts her gaze past the window glass to the sky. The moon sits silent by the treetops, like a schoolyard kid hoping someone will ask her to play.
I’ve never used the term “specific actions”. By that, do you mean that there is a purpose for everything that character does? I’m thinking of how the story is about Mattie and her growth as a character by developing her self-confidence and not being to shy when it comes to interacting with other people. BUT, from the beginning, Uncle Potluck tells Mattie he talks to the moon and the moon talks back. It doesn’t make sense until the end. In the end, what it means is that if you tell or share any piece of you (not necesarily with the moon) that you feel that recognition and validity of that statement and it resonates within you (so it feels like the moon talking back). At the beginning it seems like that advice is only for Mattie and that it’s Mattie’s story but when I stopped to think about this it really applied to many of the characters.
Mattie has to talk and open up to Quincy to become her friend. Mama has to open up to Mattie to share why they have moved so much. Quincy has to open up to Mattie to share her insecurities (which helps Mattie trust her). Quincy also has to open up to her aunt…which doesn’t officially happen, and this might be because her aunt isn’t really receptive to this). Uncle Potluck and the principal even has to be honest with each other. And my favorite is that Mattie has to tell Uncle Potluck how sorry she is and he tells her the same.
It seems like it’s just a story about a really shy girl but it’s so much more than that on so many different levels. I’m always amazed at how authors are able to weave in all these stories and make it seem effortless.
What I noticed most about Urban’s writing, is how she combines words. I haven’t been able to find a specfiic term for this…we should really ask Jeff Anderson but I call them compound adjectives or compound verbs. Did you notice that Linda Urban puts two words together with a hyphen to create a hyphenated adjective:
p.1 – holding the ladder “two-hand steady”
p. 12 – she explains she takes “something shiny-silver out of her bureau” when she talks about her silver notebook
p. 120 – “Miss Sweet’s glass-shatter laugh”
She even makes compound verbs:
p. 21 – when Star crumples up Mattie’s notebook page she’s “fist-crunching Mattie’s story page”
p. 84 – When Mattie is vacuuming – she “zoom-zips the vacuum under chairs”
Your snatch of text even has one: “stretched-tight smiles”.
I have been a big fan of hyphenating words like these ever since high school. I can remember writing notes to my best friend and making up long strings of hyphenated words. It is so creative and imaginative. I think by doing this she also makes her writing focused and specific. She doesn’t use words or phrases that are commonly over-used. She’s making up her own words.
Talking about this kind of writing reminds me of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. That book seemed so intentional, too. Intentional in a way that the reader has no idea how significant everything is and then you get to the end and it all just falls into place and you didn’t even realize how brilliant it was. It takes your breath away. It makes me happy that you have read When You Reach Me and gave it 5 stars on GoodReads just like I did. Did you know we have 91% of our books in common? That’s crazy-awesome.
That is funny that I use the term “specific-actions” and you haven’t heard it used. It is something that Lucy Calkins uses a lot in her Units of Study writing books. I just love how Linda helped me to see every single little action that Mattie was doing.
I never noticed the hyphenated words. Thanks for pointing them out. I LOVE THEM! I’ll be looking for them more in the near future. I was going to listen to A Crooked Kind of Perfect, but I might have to read it now to see if Linda uses them in that book as well.
I think this book has a real shot to win the Newbery. The more I picture the judges reading these books over and over, I just can’t help but think that this book will be able to stand tall against the others. When you reread a book, you often begin to see its flaws. When I reread Hound Dog True, I was looking for flaws, and I just couldn’t find them.
I’ve read Calkins but not that book! I went through junior high and high school with reading and writing workshop. In college, I remember reading her workshop books for a presentation I had to do for a class. It seemed so natural to me.
I do have a question for you, since you have read it multiple times now. Did you notice that Urban doesn’t describe Mattie’s physical characteristics? At one point I was trying to picture Mattie and realized there wasn’t really a description. I was thinking of a student I had who was insanely shy. She was very naive for her age and wore bows in her hair that seemed too childish for her age. If anyone asked her a question she would shrink and her eyes would go wide like she was scared to answer. It was interesting to me that even when Star teases her it has nothing to do with her physically but the fact that she likes to writes.