Harley the Hero
Harley the Hero
The titular Harley, a big shaggy yellow dog, is a hero because he is an assistance animal. He comes to school every day in his blue vest with a badge that says ‘Do Not Touch. Service Dog’. He helps primary teacher Ms. Prichard who has “an invisible disability” to “feel safe so she can be the best teacher she can be”.
Ms. Prichard is first shown standing at the blackboard with Harley tethered on a leash that loops around her waist. And the rules for keeping Harley on the job and undistracted are clearly posted beside that blackboard. The one time the dog strays from attending to his work is when he gives in to a temptation to lick the children’s feet, an action which most of the children enjoy.
The boy who is the first-person narrator has a classmate who also appears to have some problems. She wears noise-cancelling headphones, and as her friend says:
I’m kind of like Harley for Amelia – there are lots of things I do to make her feel safe.
I watch out for things that might upset her, like LOUD noises, weird smells, or too-close things. Amelia makes sure my pencils are extra sharp and listens to my stories.
Other kids don’t really get it. Harley does.
Harley is a classroom fixture for all of these cheerful kids who look to be seven or eight-years- old, and his ‘Animail’ box is regularly stuffed with notes and homemade treats (and sometimes leftover vegetables!).
The atmosphere in Ms. Prichard’s room, which everyone works hard to keep serene, is seriously disrupted on the day the old stage curtains catch fire. The fire alarm rings, and the children and their teacher hurry to get out (“Everyone ran to the door, even though we were supposed to walk.”), all except a panicked Amelia.
I could hear the fire trucks coming. HARLEY BARKED AND PULLED
HARD on his leash, dragging Ms. Prichard back to her desk.
Harley found Amelia under the desk. He NUDGED her.
He PULLED on her sleeve. He BARKED in her ear.
Then Harley LICKED her boots. Amelia was so startled
she jumped out from under the desk.
Harley and the children get out of the school, and firefighters arrive in time to put out the blaze before it causes much damage. The teachers and students are safe, and Harley is hailed as a hero.
The last spread shows a circle of bare feet of all sizes and skin tones (a firefighter is recognizable by his yellow pants, and that must be Ms. Prichard with the painted toenails) with Harley in the middle, enjoying an orgy of toe-tickling foot licking.
And even heroes get to take a break sometimes.
Collins has based her book on the true experience of a young teacher suffering from PTSD whom she met at her son’s school. Although not a depiction of a situation all children will be familiar with, this wonderful show of empathy by children for their young teacher, and by the narrator, for the fragile Amelia provides some valuable insights to young readers.
The author has executed her own illustrations for the book. Bold colours are used for the digital artwork which has the look of having been rendered in oil pastel and line. The facial expressions of the humans and of one friendly dog are very readable throughout, from glee at watching Harley open the Animail box on his own, to the pleasure of a circle time, to dismay at the sound of the fire bell. Perspectives are dynamic and sometimes pull readers in by showing only a fragment of a scene.
A classroom drama with a lesson in caring, Harley the Hero will be enjoyed by children and the adults who introduce the book to them.
Ellen Heaney is a retired children’s librarian living in Coquitlam, British Columbia.