I Need A Hero! Or children's books about them, anyway
April 12, 2013 12:14 PM   Subscribe

Mini McGee is suddenly very interested in heroes (especially when they do some rescuing). I'd like to get some more children's books about heroes for him (and his brother), especially if they are a little off-beat.

He is 3 1/2. He likes slightly longer picture books with a plot and right now his dad is reading him Beverly Cleary books at bedtime, so a pretty wide range. (Books that stretch beyond that range are fine, too, he'll grow into them.)

I'd like to find some books with different sorts of heroes. One of the messages he seems to be getting from other little boys at school is that only boys are heroes, and that heroes fight and punch. I am fine with traditional knights in shining armor (or superheroes in spandex bodysuits!), but I'd also like to make sure we show him some heroes who are girls, and some heroes who are heroes for reasons other than physical prowess, etc.

It's most important that the stories show an underlying morality -- I'm not interested in books where the hero is after personal glory or pure adventure, but rather I want heroes who are motivated by wanting to do the right thing. My son is VERY interested in what makes someone a hero and how he can be a hero too, so I want to make sure he's hearing that it isn't the "fighting and punching" itself that's heroic but that you're "fighting and punching" in order to help someone who needs help.
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Writing & Language (43 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I can't recommend any specific books, but as for subjects - Police, Fire, EMS, Lifeguards, Coast Guard, USAF ParaRescue Jumpers all do super-human acts on a regular basis... and most importantly, they're not imaginary.
posted by blaneyphoto at 12:21 PM on April 12, 2013

I...I know this might be a bit for the older crowd but The Adventures of Captain Underpants!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:22 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ginger Pye was one of my favorites when I was a kid. It's about two siblings who get their puppy stolen and track down the dognapper. I believe both kids (a girl and a boy) do a significant amount of sleuthing. The dog's eventually rescued, so that's heroic, right?
posted by phunniemee at 12:29 PM on April 12, 2013

It's most important that the stories show an underlying morality -- I'm not interested in books where the hero is after personal glory or pure adventure, but rather I want heroes who are motivated by wanting to do the right thing.

With all due respect to Ruthless Bunny, stay away from Captain Underpants. Even setting aside the fact that your son is too young, the stories don't present a positive moral matrix.
posted by alms at 12:35 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Around that age, my son liked having The Magic Treehouse series of books read to him.
posted by plinth at 12:42 PM on April 12, 2013

Our family are huge consumers of children's illustrated books and I can't say there are many good books about heros and heroines per se. If you want books about strong or triumphant females, then I could recommend a lot of good books.

That being said, you might want to look at Brave Irene, and also a great book about a hero male duck who is effeminate is The Sissy Duckling.
posted by Dansaman at 12:45 PM on April 12, 2013

My son was fond of the Nate the Great series.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 12:46 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Our youngest boy has inherited a love of Nate the Great stories from his slightly older brother.
posted by jquinby at 12:47 PM on April 12, 2013

Maybe for a little bit of an older age, but I remember in my family we liked Girls to the Rescue.
posted by mlle valentine at 12:49 PM on April 12, 2013

Response by poster: "Strong or triumphant" may fit the bill -- I'm happy with a pretty broad definition of "hero." He knows, for example, that the police officers in Make Way for Ducklings are heroes because, his words, "They help people like ducklings who are too little to do things themselves." I'd like things a bit more on point heroically, but it can definitely be kids helping animals or someone standing up to bullies or whatever, not just dramatic rescue adventures.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a good one, although it works better if we edit down the side stories a little bit and focus on the main plot. He likes stories with plots now but if they have too many sidenotes he gets lost.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:59 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

The original run of Little Orphan Annie has been reprinted. I just finished reading the first volume (1924-26) to my daughter. There are 2-4 month story arcs cut with sight gags. (I dont know why it lists at $90 on AMZN right now - it was normal priced a month ago). Annie is definitely a heroine who uses her fists to right wrongs and is very free with her moral judgements.

When it is time for chapter books there was a series from the 60s/70s, Trixie Belden which my daughter liked a lot.

Other things that come to mind are the Octonauts books. The Octonauts have peaceful adventures and eat lots of kelp cakes. The books predate the TV show, btw.

You might also like Zen Shorts, which gives gentle Buddhist lessons.
posted by shothotbot at 1:01 PM on April 12, 2013

How about "How to Train Your Dragon" by Cressida Cowell?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:13 PM on April 12, 2013

Most of the things I can think of are for older readers (The Phantom Tollbooth, Matilda, the Bobbsey Twins, the Boxcar Children, Pippi Longstocking).

The younger books that I can think of that more or less fit your criteria are Horton Hears a Who!, The Story of Ferdinand, and Androcles and the Lion.
posted by pitrified at 1:23 PM on April 12, 2013

I don't remember the exact stories well enough, but you might look at Sesame Street's Super Grover. I remember them being fun for the kids, and inspiring because they got to see Grover dress up and transform himself into the superhero. And that it didn't always work out the way he wanted it to.
posted by CathyG at 1:26 PM on April 12, 2013

Pippi Longstocking!
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 1:33 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

For his current age:
Katy and the Big Snow
Little Toot
Horton Hears a Who
The Bromeliad (Truckers, Diggers, Wings)

As He gets older
Only You Can Save Mankind
The Wee Free Men (and the other Tiffany Aching stories)
posted by notbuddha at 2:09 PM on April 12, 2013

"Strong or triumphant"

One I like is Stand Straight, Ella Kate.
posted by Dansaman at 2:11 PM on April 12, 2013

Mirette on the High Wire
posted by Redstart at 2:18 PM on April 12, 2013

If he's okay with having Beverly Cleary read to him, then he's probably old enough for the historical American Girl books. No really, hear me out! They're all about girls in different historical periods with significant moxie (especially Felicity, colonial girl who, in her first volume, Meet Felicity steals a horse from a man who is beating it--but Molly is great too. And Kirsten. Even Samantha, who waves orphans. Hell, they're all great).

Also The Secret Garden.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:21 PM on April 12, 2013

Seconding Mirette on the High Wire, that's a good book.
posted by Dansaman at 2:23 PM on April 12, 2013

The Paper Bag Princess
posted by evilmomlady at 2:34 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

Princesses are Not Quitters by Kate Lum fits the bill. It's perfect for ages 3-8 or so, and it's a very moral but also whimsical and fun book with interesting illustrations; it really is about the quotidian empathic aspects of heroism. Bored princesses trade places with their servants for a day; they learn to admire and appreciate the servants and decide they want to live in a way that's more fair for everyone. I think this would be great for boys or girls.
posted by third rail at 3:17 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you haven't already, try Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who" --- a strong, nurturing non-punchy hero if I ever saw one!
posted by easily confused at 3:28 PM on April 12, 2013

Heroes can be animals too!
Calico the Wonder Horse with *beautiful* woodcut illustrations
"she could run like greased lightning and she could turn on a quarter and give you back fifteen cents in change".

Virgina Lee Burton also wrote Katy and the Big Snow about a heroic tractor that becomes a snowplough in winter.
posted by tardigrade at 3:52 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cressida Cowell has a fantastic picture book series about a girl called Emily Brown -- they are sometimes hard to find in U.S. bookstores but Amazon has all of them at the moment. She is kind of an everyday hero (saving various people and creatures from self-pity, boredom, and unproductive busy-ness) and she is awesome. Highly, highly recommended, and your son is the perfect age.

There is also Michael Chabon's The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man. Picture book about a superhero. Fantastic.

I also love the aforementioned Paper Bag Princess and Princesses are Not Quitters. Also take a look at Princess Smartypants.

I have daughters so my suggestions skew that way, but the Chabon is about a little boy. A Mighty Girl is specifically for girls but might have good suggestions for you as well.
posted by xeney at 3:55 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

My favorite Emily Brown book is That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, but I wouldn't consider it a heroine or even strong female figure type book.
posted by Dansaman at 3:59 PM on April 12, 2013

While not a 'hero' story in the traditional sense, Frog Belly Rat Bone by Timothy Basil Ering is an absolutely lovely book with fantastic artwork. It is the story of a boy in a dreary place (which becomes beautiful) who finds a treasure and then creates a (non-scary) "monster" that turns out to be a hero when he saves the treasure.

All 3 of my kids really enjoyed this book, and it was fun for Mrs. Guy and myself to read to them, even after many repeated requests. Highly recommended!
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 4:21 PM on April 12, 2013

In a couple of years, he might thoroughly enjoy being read The Children's Homer.
posted by jquinby at 4:23 PM on April 12, 2013

The Rain Door has a hero, but no fighting. The editorial review on the Amazon page says "this story will prove to be a bit vague and confusing, and not particularly appealing, to most young readers" but it was a favorite of both of my kids (and me.)
posted by Redstart at 4:37 PM on April 12, 2013

How about Pippi Longstockings? She doesn't really save anyone per se, well, kind of.

Skippy John Jones books? They are really funny.
posted by mamabear at 4:39 PM on April 12, 2013

Susan Meddaugh's first Martha( about a dog who can talk when she eats alphabet soup) book has her helping to catch a burglar.
posted by brujita at 5:25 PM on April 12, 2013

The Jigsaw Jones series is about a boy who solves mysteries, so he's kind of a hero because he's always saving the day!
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:58 PM on April 12, 2013

Jane and the Dragon.
posted by snorkmaiden at 6:08 PM on April 12, 2013

Eliot Jones, Midnight Superhero should fit the bill!

This blog "No Time for Flashcards" has many lists of good books for young kids (preschool age, mostly) by topic. Here is the entry on books about strong girls, which you might like.
posted by coolsara at 6:29 PM on April 12, 2013

The day the babies crawled away is a super cute book written in second person who is a toddler hero who saves some babies who crawled away on an adventure.
posted by aetg at 6:47 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

These books are mostly for older kids (just a couple for the 3-6 age range), but there's a pretty wide variety of hero types.
posted by sa3z at 7:53 PM on April 12, 2013

Emil and the Detectives might be more appropriate for when he is a little older.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:36 PM on April 12, 2013

Un Lun Dun is China Mieville's foray into children's/young adult fiction. It's fantastic (and I think made him a better writer afterwards). The wordplay is great, and there are intermittent illustrations (iirc). Cannot recommend this hard enough especially for your requirements.

Spoilers below.

It examines the "hero archtype" where the initial character tagged as "the heroine" ends up... not, but rather the "funny (also female) sidekick" becomes the hero, through her actions and choices.

It's about what you do, not who you are. It also really reinforces making one's decisions and taking one's risks and sacrifices instead of having everything handed to the hero for, well, being The Heroine. The main character is pre-adolescent (they're ages 7-9 or so?) so she's just another ("ethnic," in the UK) "kid" rather than a "young woman" and deals with a mirror-ish fantasy world filled with wonderful, understandable, and believable characters.

Bonus: the characters who are archtypically good guys might not be and the archtypical bad guys might not be. It depends on their actions, not who they are. And some of those characters might end up realizing that. The big bad is scary, but not too much so. Might be scarier to adults than to kids. The numerous small bads are really entertaining.

There's a one-handed operation firearm (a revolver) involved, though, but it's not what it seems. Though.

There's also death, but not "real world realistic" death. But there's a passing away that was very emotional for me. There's also messages throughout about not doing "what you're supposed to."
posted by porpoise at 9:43 PM on April 12, 2013

Oh. No one has mentioned The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman yet?! Hero saving heroine galore, albeit unconventional hero.

(I might be misremembering illustrations from UnLunDun and TGB, but both might have illustrations).

iirc, "there are other ways to fight than to hit with fists and feet and head" was a part of the theme.

The ending was a really sad, though.

Answers based on my hazy recollection of adoring reading Beverly Clearly's Ramona Quimby books when I was 5-6? They along with Encyclopedia Brown and Tintin taught me to read English.
posted by porpoise at 9:48 PM on April 12, 2013

Richard Scarry books often have characters who solve problems. Busy, Busy World and the Great Big Mystery Book are the first two that come to mind.

George Beard and Harold Hutchins, while pranksters, fight bad guys. Remember that. It's important.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:44 AM on April 13, 2013

Maybe an illustrated version of the Odyssey for kids? He succeeds through cunning to return to his family and the book shows troubles befalling people due to their imprudent actions (the boasts of Odysseus or the greediness of his sailors). On the other hand he blinds a cyclops, kills the suitors and his intelligence is used for trickery, so you may want to read the version you pick to make sure it's ok for your son.
posted by ersatz at 11:06 AM on April 13, 2013

I was thinking about this in the middle of the night (why not?) and came up with The Rescuers which had mouse heroes! A boy and a girl duo. That got me thinking about other animal heroes and the Disney animal themes stories seem to be pretty heroic without so much fighting necessarily. This is probably too mature yet but Watership Down? Someone will probably come along to say why it's inappropriate but I recall it being like "action rabbits" but maybe too much so. Then! The Hobbit! Yeah, Hobbitses very clever.
posted by amanda at 12:26 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

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