Picture books are the ultimate teaching tool to spark dialogue and conversation around important subjects with young readers. They can be used to help ease anxiety with transitions like back-to-school time, educate and reinforce messages during awareness campaigns, or simply to be enjoyed! Our latest Hooked on Books story falls in all these categories with a personal favourite of our president - Harley the Hero - created by Napanee, Ontario’s Peggy Collins. Inspired by her children’s school in Limestone District School Board, the characters are based on a special elementary teacher and her classroom service dog. While not overtly pointed out, it covers topics of autism and neurodivergence, intertwined with kindness and courage. This is all achieved in an age-appropriate manner, with an Author’s Note in the back to offer deeper explanation to delve further. Read on for our Hooked on Books with Peggy Collins!
Our latest Hooked on Books is dedicated to Peggy Collins’ award-winning picture book, Harley the Hero. Our in-person and online tutoring team especially love feel-good picture books like this which also reinforce important messages like friendship, safety and neurodiversity – just to name a few. While this story can be enjoyed any time of year, the important topics covered make it ideal to read with students during key times including the return to school, Invisible Disabilities Awareness Week, Fire Prevention Week and Autism Awareness Month – just to give parents and educators a few educational ideas!
Fun fact, our president, Joanne Sallay, and her son first met Peggy at the Forest of Reading Festival where she gave them an in-person tutorial in media arts on her creative process. When Joanne had to pick a book as the mystery reader for her daughter’s kindergarten class the following week, it was an easy choice. The 4 and 5 year-old students were enthralled with this story, and they had MANY questions. This inspired a few of our own, so read on for Joanne’s interview with Peggy Collins.
An Interview with Peggy Collins
Tell us in your words about Harley the Hero.
Harley the Hero came about from a classroom visit I had with Ms. Richards at Selby Public School (1623 Lennox and Addington County Rd 41, Selby, ON K0K 2Z0). I was working with the class on a book (in these workshops, the kids and I write a story one day, and design characters and illustrate it the next). Stanley, Ms. Richards’ service dog, was the obvious hero. Large, lazy (according to the kids all he did was lie there) and present, but untouchable. They really seemed to sense how extraordinary he made their day, just by being.
Harley, the book is about friendship, looking out for each other and finding ways to communicate when you really need to. Throw in a dash of fire safety and licking feet and it also gets to be informative and funny.
Living in Napanee, Ontario, do you have a favourite reading and writing nook?
I love reading and writing outside, early in the morning, on my porch. I love listening to the birds and watching the world wake up.
Your picture book was inspired by a teacher with a service animal in the classroom. What are the similarities and differences between your story about Harley and Ms. Prichard, and the real-life Stanley and Sherri Richards?
Well, intentionally, there are many similarities. As time has gone on, there are so many more.
Stanley is big, but he's not as HUGE as Harley. But a lot of the story and characters are based on the real-life versions of them. I filled the classroom with kids I know from the school and mashed together elements of other things that have happened (the fire was real, but my son was in grade 2 and Stanley was not at the school).
Ironically, the licking of the feet didn't come until much later. I had rewritten this book SO MANY times... and it still needed something. I reached out to Sherri AGAIN and asked if there was anything else funny that Stanley did - and she said, well its kind of silly, but he likes to lick feet. That was a MAGIC moment, because that became the humour, the way to save the day and really bring in the idea of sensory differences as well. SO, I rewrote it again, and it worked.
What motivated you to write about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for young students?
SO many people are walking around with invisible disabilities. We don't honour them like we would a broken arm or an illness - but they are. I think it's also important for kids to know that adults, too... struggle and need help too.
There was a lot of discussion about this, and I felt very strongly that keeping it invisible would be more important than making it something you could see. I really wanted a pathway to talking about it, so that we can learn and share how to be gentle with everyone.
PTSD can be debilitating. Seeing the difference a dog like Stanley could make for my friend got me very curious. Luckily, she was so brave and shared with all of us what it meant to her.
How can teachers and educators use your book in the classroom?
Well - I learned a lot about service dogs while working on this. But there is so much more, here are some suggestions:
- Service dogs
- invisible disabilities
- autism/sensory processing, and understanding we all need different things to feel safe and secure
- fire safety
Pajama Press has an AWESOME teacher guide to go with the book!
What message do you hope readers take away from your picture book?
I hope they giggle. I hope they see themselves, their friends, and their classmates. I hope they are gentler with each other, their teachers and themselves. I hope they know how and when to interact with a service animal - and can educate the adults around them. I hope they talk about things that make it hard to do things. I hope they share the things that make them uncomfortable and feel secure in sharing what makes them feel safe.
And lastly, I hope they talk about getting out the door during a fire, and not hiding... and keeping an eye out for friends that might find that hard.
We had the pleasure of meeting at the Forest of Reading Festival. What does the Forest of Reading program mean to you personally?
Oh wow. It was a dream come true. I have watched, from the sidelines for a very long time. It was an absolutely incredible experience to know that the kids were reading Harley AND choosing it - it kinda blew my mind. I loved every second of it and got to visit so many classrooms and libraries to draw and read - it was SO MUCH FUN.
I especially loved how many people got to see the book and reach out with their own stories. Books are, after all - about connecting to each other with story.
As both an author and illustrator, what does the creative process look like for writing and illustrating the same book? How do you incorporate digital tools into creating your art?
The creative process for this book was looooooooong. It varies from project to project. Usually, I am just the illustrator, so it was a LOT more pressure. I sketched and rewrote a lot. I think I have 50+ versions of this story. I wanted to get it right, I wanted to honour everyone in it. Being able to do this job is a gift (while you also create a gift) so it's slightly agonizing. It was 4+ years in the making.
I now use my iPad to draw and paint my images, this makes things faster and easier to change. It also means I can work anywhere. It's been a game changer.
How do you recommend parents approach the topic of neurodivergence and invisible disabilities with their children?
I think it's important to not shame anyone for being curious - but it is important to be kind while being curious. Talk about how best to be a good friend and what that looks like for different people. Understanding that we all carry something that might make us experience things differently and that we all need to feel safe is important. How can we create safety and comfort for each other and for ourselves?
Books are a great place to start.
What’s next for you?
Well, I am currently working on my second book written by Lana Button, that follows Percy's Perfect Friend. I am teaching art full-time and co-coordinating the Animation and Game program at Loyalist College (376 Wallbridge Loyalist Rd, Belleville, ON K8N 5B9), and I am going to school - so it is busy busy. But great - curiosity and learning should never stop. Thank you for having me!
We hope you enjoyed our interview with Peggy Collins spotlighting Harley the Hero. For all her fans, you are in luck. While Peggy has illustrated numerous books, this includes A Sky-Blue Bench which was featured in our previous Hooked on Books with Bahram Rahman. Happy Reading!
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