Children's authors reveal that not all heroes have superpowers
Spider-Man, Captain America, Batman, The Avengers — these superheroes may save the world on a regular basis in movie theaters. But book readers know that heroes come in all shapes and sizes and don’t need superpowers to be special to their fans. Authors know it, too — so in honor of Children’s Book Week, we tracked down some of our favorite kids’ book writers to ask them what makes a hero who is super between the pages.
Lane Smith ("It’s A Book")
Heroic inspiration: “My favorite hero was Treehorn from Florence Parry Heide and Edward Gorey’s ‘The Shrinking of Treehorn.’ I appreciated Treehorn’s deadpan delivery and stoicism. Unlike characters with a ‘message,’ little Treehorn, trapped in a grown-up world, simply accepted his fate. In his case, shrinking."
What makes a great hero? “I like characters with humor. Also independent, slightly subversive heroes: Max from ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ the little boy in ‘The Carrot Seed.’ The Cat in ‘The Cat in the Hat.’”
Kevin Henkes (“The Year of Billy Miller”)
Heroic inspiration: “Harold from ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon, because he had a great imagination, a great sense of adventure, and he always came home.”
What makes a great hero? “There are so many kinds of heroes. I’m drawn to those with big hearts. I like my heroes to be kind, convincing as characters, and written with emotional truth.”
Daniel Pinkwater (“The Hoboken Chicken Emergency”)
Heroic inspiration: “Huckleberry Finn. A random choice; they were others. I had an older sister who used to read to me every night. She had no interest in junky books. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was also my school for becoming an author.”
What makes a great hero? “Great writing.”
Lincoln Peirce (“Big Nate”)
Heroic inspiration: “Charlie Bucket, the penniless little boy from ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ by Roald Dahl, is a character who completely fascinated me when I was young. I've read the book many times, and Charlie's unimaginable poverty, his unlikely adventure, and his miraculous triumph never fail to cast a spell.”
What makes a great hero? “A character whose responses to hardship, crisis, or danger we'd like to think ourselves capable of. In ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ Charlie — surrounded by the selfishness and greed of his peers — is humble, levelheaded, and kind.”
Herman Parish (“Amelia Bedelia”)
Heroic inspiration: “My father was in the military when I was very young. We were stationed in England when my Aunt Peggy Parish (who created the “Amelia” series Herman now writes) sent me ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ To me, the Cat was an American. He was bold and inventive and fun. I took him as a role model. To the English, that Cat was how all we loud, brash, overconfident Americans behaved. They couldn't wait for us to go back to the U.S. and neither could I.”
What makes a great hero? “One who stays the course no matter the cost. They can be on any side and do not have to win in the end. But they must be true to their cause or quest and, most important, to themselves.”
Judith Viorst (“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”)
Heroic inspiration: “Mary Lennox of Frances Hodgson Burnett's ‘The Secret Garden’ was not one of those noble, valiant, resourceful, self-sacrificing, and usually good-looking heroines I so frequently encountered among the great children's book heroines of the past. Truly obnoxious was more like it, along with exceedingly rude, self-centered, and grouchy. But I loved her because I could so easily identify with her. I loved her because like many kids, I knew that deep inside me lurked a Mary. And I loved her because she helped me believe that, like the flawed young heroine of this book, I too could be transformed, could be redeemable.”
What makes a great hero? "Aslan of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' was awesome and noble and my sons thought he was the greatest — someone they could look up to, admire, even revere. But they also loved naughty Max of 'Where the Wild Things Are' because he was adventurous and defiant, someone with whom they could identify and through whom they could live vicariously.... Each of these characters, by the way, is a very, very, specific character, one you feel you really know, one you would never confuse with anyone else."
Bob Pflugfelder (“Nick and Tesla” books)
Heroic inspiration: “My favorite book (when I was around 9 years old) was ‘My Side of the Mountain’ by Jean Craighead. I was fascinated by the idea of a boy living in his own in the woods and having a falcon as a pet. He had no fears because he understood nature and the outdoors. That would have definitely been me (if I hadn’t lived in the New York suburbs).”
What makes a great hero? “A great children’s book hero is a problem solver — a character that uses his or her mind and abilities to change the world in ways that might be great or small. They don’t always have superpowers or need to be popular. They are driven by the desire to do something great.”
Soman Chainani (“The School for Good and Evil”)
Heroic inspiration: “I loved Claudia Kincaid in ‘From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’ because she reminded me of myself at 12 years old — impetuous, a diligent student, and thirsty for adventure. She's almost like a great fairy-tale character: far away from home, alone with her brother, and determined to survive using her wits.”
What makes a great hero? “It's the flaws in a character that make them great. Mary Poppins' stubbornness, Peter Pan's ruthless quest for eternal youth, Alice's temper, Bilbo's uptightness — it's the idiosyncrasy and human frailties of each that we love the most.”
Tony Diterlizzi ("The Spiderwick Chronicles")
Heroic inspiration: "As a kid, my favorite literary heroine was Dorothy Gale from L. Frank Baum's classic 'The Wizard of Oz.' ... It is her kindhearted actions that gather the allies that she will need to complete her many tasks, which will bring her home. Not only is that an admirable trait to see as the hidden strength of a fictitious character, it is admirable in our real world as well."
What makes a great hero? "A great hero or heroine is a strong and resourceful character who draws us into his or her compelling journey, real or fantastical, mortal or magical. When well-written, we can envision ourselves sharing their experiences. We relate to their struggles, flaws, desires and values, regardless of their powers, or special abilities."
Deborah Ellis ("Moon at Nine")
Heroic inspiration: "Anna Solden, from Jean Little's outstanding book "From Anna." Anna is the awkward one in her family of German immigrants who have come to Canada to escape World War II. With few tools at her disposal, Anna finds the strength to believe in herself and heal her family, allowing everyone to become kinder in the process."
What makes a great hero? "The biggest heroes in life are the ones who never believe they are heroic.... The best heroines and heroes in children's literature reflect this — they are kids who believe they are lacking in something others have, yet they do not let that deter them from reaching beyond what they believe they can do in order to save someone in peril."
Jane Yolen, Heidi Stemple ("National Geographic's Book of Animal Stories")
Heroic inspiration: "One of my all-time favorite heroes is the very tiny Charlotte from 'Charlotte's Web,' who saves her friend Wilbur. And really, isn't that the best kind of hero?" (Stemple) "My first beloved heroes were three — an animal, a sibling, a king. Ferdinand the bull who refused to fight in 'The Story of Ferdinand,' the sister in the Russian fairy tale 'Little Sister, Little Brother,' and King Arthur in any number of books I read." (Yolen)
What makes a great hero? "A great hero doesn't have to save the world; she (or he, of course) just have to be brave, smart, and willing to try — try hard, try something new, or try again." (Stemple) "The great children's book hero (male or female, as I hate the word heroine) is inquisitive, committed, passionate, caring, and occasionally wrongheaded but willing to admit to same." (Yolen)
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