Ten: Defining “Hero”

The topic for this week’s Ten followed my discovery, on following a recommendation, that my library had three different books called Sidekicks — a middle grade series starter, a YA novel, and a graphic novel. Of course I requested all three. As I read these, and the others listed below, I found that while the term “hero” is still popular, almost every story focused on a “hero” is at least partly concerned with what exactly heroism means. Traditionally — according to dictionary.com — a hero is (some mix of) daring, altruistic and courageous, and admired by his or her community for these qualities. Is that really what makes a hero? And what does heroism look like when you’re called on to be the hero? Check out this week’s titles for ten answers.

Sidekicks written by Dan Danko and Tom Mason and illustrated by Barry Gott
A group of kids with promising but undeveloped powers provide their services whenever the League of Big Justice needs a hand. When the League is captured, Guy Martin (Speedy) leads the other sidekicks on a rescue mission. While several characters claim the role of “hero” based more on supposed “powers” than on actual heroic activity, Guy and his fellow sidekicks are brave, resourceful, and willing to use their respective talents to help when needed.

Sidekicks by Jack Ferraiolo
Scott Hutchinson (Bright Boy) discovers that his nemesis, supervillain sidekick Monkeywrench, is not as evil as he’d imagined, while his own hero, Phantom Justice, has some pretty dark secrets. Scott’s built his identity around his altruistic work behind the scenes, but when his assumptions about his sidekick life come up against the truth, he has to figure out what he’s fighting for, and who he wants to be.

Sidekicks by Dan Santat
Captain Amazing’s pets have secret lives of their own. Roscoe is planning to audition for the Captain’s sidekick slot, Fluffy and Shifty are a tiny crime-fighting team in their own right, and Manny, the sidekick who ran away, turns up with wisdom to share. There’s some tension, especially around Roscoe, but when it counts, the four manage to pull together to save the day.

Zero the Hero by Joan Holub and Tom Lichtenheld
Zero knows he’s a hero, but the other numbers aren’t much interested. After all, Zero can’t count with the rest, and his contribution to arithmetic is lackluster. When the Roman numerals attack, though, Zero has just the talent the numbers need to send the numerals packing. And of course, hero that he is, he’s glad to help.

The Last Musketeer by Jason
The last active Musketeer, Athos, leaps into action when Mars attacks France. With lots of adventure, and a bit of help, Athos demonstrates that heroism is as much about willingness as it is about talent or bravery.

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy
The four Princes Charming — those known from the minstrel tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White — are ready to make (individual) names for themselves. Newly acquainted with one another, they set out to defeat a witch with a dastardly plan. As it turns out, all four seem to bring more weaknesses than talent to the team, and it takes a few failed adventures to get them working together. They do eventually get the hang of things, but unfortunately for the princes, even a genuine hero doesn’t always get the credit.

Legends of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
Zita did make a name for herself on her last adventure, and everyone wants to meet her. A handy double happens along just as Zita’s had about all she can take of the crowds, so she sneaks off for a break — and accidentally gets left behind. When she and her friends are finally reunited, her double proves that sometimes sacrifice is all it takes to make a hero.

My Dad, My Hero by Ethan Long
A little boy explains, with plenty of entertaining examples, that his father is not a superhero. But a super dad can still be a kid’s hero!

Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes
Paolo wants to be a hero like his father, whose anti-fascist politics forced him to flee the family’s home in Florence, Italy, years ago. As the Allies draw near the city on their liberation campaign, Paolo, his sister, Constanza, and their mother, Rosemary, find themselves helping an anti-Nazi organisation to protect two escaped prisoners of war on their way back to their Allied armies. If they’re caught, the punishment is death — but how can they do otherwise? Though Paolo’s “hero on a bicycle” dreams crumble in the face of the true dangers of the war, he, his sister, and their mother each do all they are able to fight for goodness, no matter what it costs.

The Messenger by Lois Lowry
This may be the only title that doesn’t actually mention heroism, but Matty is a great example of the type of hero for which the first nine books argue. When Matty’s community is faced with a danger it can’t overcome alone, Matty has the needed talent, and a willingness to act bravely and to sacrifice. And in the end, it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks about his choice.

P.S. I didn’t take space to discuss it book by book, but most of these stories do challenge, in some way or other, a simplistic good guy/bad guy understanding of the situation in question. Ferraiolo’s Sidekicks and Hughes’s Hero on a Bicycle do this most explicitly, but I think only Danko and Mason’s Sidekicks and Long’s My Dad, My Hero (where it’s irrelevant) skip the question altogether.


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