Given that Alice Cooper’s pronouncement that “school’s out for summer, school’s out forever” is only true for a month or so, it is past time for Back to School table displays to be up now. Our display is highly curated because if First Day of School books all attended the same classroom it would present an overcrowding issue. Though the table is largely populated by old standbys (our favorite remains Edda), it is our duty to scour the frontlist for great new books in this genre. Thanks to Jared Chapman’s Steve, Raised by Wolves (Little, Brown), this year’s quest for an outstanding new First Day of School book was not in vain.
The plot is simple and straightforward. Steve, a young human boy, has literally been raised by wolves. He lives in a cave along the bus route, and is starting school along with the other (not raised by wolves) human kids in the district. When I opened the book I didn’t think Chapman would pull it off, but the book is a big success. Why does it work?
First, it sticks tightly to the script. It has a simple point to make and never digresses from it, nor does it play with the internal consistency of who Steve is and what his living arrangements are. Steve is anxious about school. His wolf mom is articulate and supportive. “Steve,” his mom said, ‘I know you’re anxious about going to school. It’s not always easy to get along with humans, but just be yourself. I know you’ll have a great day!” Steve does not have a great first day, however, because he has yet to learn the lesson of the book: be yourself, but in a positive relation to your classmates. At first Steve’s impulses – howling during attendance, shredding banners, pouncing on other kids, and eating a raw dead bird for lunch – are not a big hit.
The next day, despite a note sent home from his teacher, and wise words from his mom, is even worse. He ate another child’s homework, marked his territory on the slide, and drank from the toilet. This behavior precipitates a visit from the teacher to Steve’s cave, and some real soul-searching by Steve.
In the end Steve learns to use who he is to save the day and be a productive, contributing member of the classroom. Steve has succeed in adapting to school, and Steve, Raised by Wolves has succeeded in being a great First Day of School Book. It is tremendously funny, both to adults and children, and its humor allows anxious children to feel lighter-hearted about their own anxieties. If Steve can do it so can they. The power of singularity and precision of concept cannot be overrated in determining what makes a picture book work sometimes. Great stuff!