First Day of School. By Anne Rockwell. Pictures by Lizzy Rockwell. Harper. $16.99.
Hooper Finds a Family: A Hurricane Katrina Dog’s Survival Tale. By Jane Paley. Harper. $15.99.
Books that capture reality, or almost capture it, offer children a more-ordered view of their life in the world while still staying in touch with everyday occurrences. First Day of School is a matter-of-fact look at preparations for a new school year, from the days before the new term starts until the children actually show up in Mrs. Madoff’s classroom. Intended for ages 3-6, Anne Rockwell’s book keeps the excitement believable and low-key, from the boy narrator’s preschool haircut to shopping for a new backpack to memories of last year’s first-day jitters. Lizzy Rockwell’s pictures make the students determinedly multiethnic: white, Hispanic, black, Oriental, and so on. And the pictures make it clear that everyone gets along beautifully and is friends with everyone else. In fact, the book has so little conflict – none – that its main value will be for families wanting to show first-time students (most likely preschoolers, although possibly kindergartners) just how ordinary it is to make your own lunch, buy new shoes, and gather such supplies as a ruler, markers and pencils. Since there is nothing worrisome here, there is no climax, either: the book ends with the narrator, Nicholas, finding out that he and his friend Charlie are in the same class. First Day of School is, if anything, a little too close to reality: there is nothing special or heightened about it. But that may be just what young children worried about school need in order to approach the first day without fear.
On the other hand, there is plenty of conflict and worry in Hooper Finds a Family, which TV producer Jane Paley bases on her experiences with the yellow Lab puppy she adopted after Hurricane Katrina. The book, for ages 8-12, includes pictures of the real-life Hooper at the end. But the Hooper of this narrative is the sort of imagined canine who will be familiar to young readers from many other books. Hooper narrates his own story, which begins in Lake Charles, Louisiana, as Hurricane Katrina hits, and eventually ends with the pup settling in with a new family in New York City. Between that start and that conclusion, there is plenty of angst to go around. The pup, named Jimmy in Louisiana, is washed along on a rooftop in a flood, encounters a poisonous cottonmouth snake, has to eat a baby bird to survive, is rescued by a man using a door as a boat, and is taken to a shelter – where he learns some valuable survival lessons from a dog he calls One-Eye. He loses his bark in the midst of all the terror – his regaining it much later, in New York, is an important development. The Jane character in the book (Paley’s fictionalized interpretation of herself) tells the family’s new pup, “Dare to be brave,” and that advice proves crucial to the newly named Hooper as he learns what it is like to be a city dog. Paley allows Hooper time for some amusing observations about her human family – “Jane’s not bad, but Larry is a grump and the kid’s very strange” – but the focus, by and large, is on Hooper’s thoughts as he tries to adapt to new circumstances, a new place and a totally new environment. The lessons learned in Louisiana prove crucial to success in New York, and eventually Hooper settles down and settles in with the family for a big happy ending. In an afterword, Paley tells young readers that many other animals were less lucky than Hooper; but the book itself is filled with warmth and a sense of abiding joy for dog and humans alike.