Walt Disney once revealed an interesting tidbit from his personal life: His daughter never forgave him for killing Bambi’s mother. Despite the reaction, Disney was unapologetic. He maintained that reality is often scary, sometimes cruel, and he had no interest in protecting children from the fact that sometimes a hunter will kill a deer in the woods and sometimes that deer’s death will leave behind a Bambi. It’s an unflinching sort of common sense shared by Missoula children’s author Sneed Collard.
“I see very few children who are unscathed by very personal tragedies,” Collard says, “and yet it’s essential if children are going to succeed in life that they move on.”
Collard, a speaker at schools throughout the country as well as within Montana, sees the need to empower children through books. “I go to schools where two-thirds of the kids are from broken homes and a lot of them don’t even know any of their parents, but I don’t want them to spend a lot of time feeling sorry for themselves because they can’t. That’s a luxury they really can’t afford if they’re going to create positive lives for themselves later.”
Despite the gravity of his words, Collard’s speaking voice sounds exactly how a children’s author’s voice ought to sound: engaged, forthcoming and perfectly inflected for reading aloud to a roomful of curious kids. And that’s something he’ll be doing a lot of over the next few months as he shares from his latest book, Dog Sense.
Collard, a marine biologist by education and author of more than 40 books for young people, has broken new ground with Dog Sense in a couple of ways. Not only is it his first novel, but it’s also his first long work that doesn’t rely upon a scientific foundation.
The majority of Collard’s books present science to kids through titles like Sea Snakes, Animal Dads, Making Animal Babies and A Whale Biologist at Work. But inspired by Collard’s own border collie, Mattie, Dog Sense tells the story of 13-year-old Guy, who moves from California to the fictional town of Coffee, Mont., after the sudden departure of his father. In Coffee, Guy and his mother move in with his eccentric and seemingly half-senile grandpa. In one hilarious moment, Guy, already late for his first day at Big Sky Middle School, is stopped by an urgent plea from Grandpa: “Guy?…My ’roids are actin’ up again. Can you get me my ‘H’?”
Dog Sense, however, doesn’t simply tell the tale of a displaced boy and his crazy ol’ grandpa. As the novel unravels, it tells a story much more nuanced, affectionate and realistic. It’s a young person’s novel that deals with tough issues like adult depression: “Several times I overheard Mom say Dad was ‘depressed’ when she didn’t know I was listening. I thought she meant he was unhappy, but looking back, I think he was Depressed with a capital D. Depressed as in sick.” Other personal issues are covered as well: boyhood bullies, small-town politics and friendship. Not long after beginning school, Guy becomes the target of the class bully, Brad. And, in an attempt to overcome adversity, Guy enters his beloved border collie Streak in a Frisbee-catching contest against Brad’s dog, Shep. The bet dictates that if Streak loses, Guy must surrender Streak to Brad.
Although Collard doesn’t subscribe to the popular belief that fiction for boys loses out numerically to fiction marketed specifically toward young girls, he does feel that many boys’ issues remain underexplored. Among these, bullying tops the list.
“There’s a huge push to stamp out bullying in schools,” Collard says, “and while I applaud it, I think it’s kind of naïve because every boy is going to go through this. Boys will always have these intense male pecking order interactions, and I felt in writing [Dog Sense] someone needed to present this issue from a realistic perspective. You can have all the anti-bullying programs you want, but it’s still going to happen and kids are still going to have to deal with it. Mostly on their own.”
When a children’s author begins to discuss male pecking orders, it’s not so difficult to imagine that the writer comes from a scientific background. In Collard’s case, the connection is fairly straightforward. With a biologist father and a stepfather who studied fireflies, Collard, who was an avid reader as a child, spent much of his young adulthood in the company of scientists. At the age of 15 he began keeping a journal, which he credits as the beginning of his writing life:
“I think the seeds of writing really got planted in there. My love of nature and the environment stimulated the science writing, but I was also thinking about stories, and even if you look at my science books, you’ll see I’m really focusing on the stories I can find within them. My fiction,” he maintains, “is really just an extension of that.”
Sneed Collard will read from and sign copies of Dog Sense at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 7 PM. He will also appear at Shakespeare & Co. on Thursday, Sept. 15, at 5 PM.