6 super stories that celebrate unexpected heroes
Published on: 11 April 2023
My Life on Fire author Cath Howe recommends some favourite books starring unlikely – but wonderful – heroes.
As I was writing My Life On Fire, I found myself thinking about the whole idea of a hero or heroine.
Children's fiction has a history of pitting the little guy against the monster. Think of Harry Potter against Lord Voldemort's vast power. Or The Lord of The Rings, with its unlikely band of brave hobbits journeying into Mordor.
These small guys are often seen as innocents with strong values and a special kind of bravery. But we may also need to unpick what a hero can be - or maybe we just need to widen the scope.
Real heroes may be under the adult radar and maybe when children recognise these unlikely heroes they can begin to imagine themselves confronting real-life situations which demand just as much bravery as the biggest physical adventures.
In My Life On Fire, I've created Caspar, who shares in telling the story. He is an enthusiastic and big-hearted boy, based on particular children I have taught. He responds with great empathy to everything that happens in his class and his instinct is always to try to make life better.
He has the innocence and moral sense that typifies a hero; discovering Ren's kleptomania, taking it on and asking himself how he can help. His empathetic response creates the kind of friendship we would all love to have.
We should never underestimate the small, different or quiet characters. Their struggles may be quietly epic too. Here is a list of unlikely or unsung heroes who have inspired me. The values they embody just might save the world.
1. Adam-2 by Alastair Chisholm
Pic: Dan Mumford
In Adam-2, a small robot holds the solution to a war. He's an unlikely hero trying to weigh up choices and looking for kind and peaceful solutions. This book asks big questions about what real heroism is. I like the sense of how hard moral choices can be.
2. Anna at War by Helen Peters
Pic: Daniela Terrazzini
This book perfectly shows the under-the-radar child who is brave, sensitive and has a really strong moral sense. A girl who has been evacuated to Kent on the Kindertransport, Anna, investigates with great intelligence and, undetected, carries out a thrilling plan to unmask a spy that tests her to the limits.
3. The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson
Pic: Mike Lowery
In The Goldfish Boy, the protagonist, Matthew, stays inside due to his OCD, performing his repetitive behaviours while scanning the road below his window - where a mystery is unfolding involving the disappearance of a toddler.
Matthew is, of course, super-observant. He will have to dig deep to find the courage to emerge from his prison-like world with information to solve the case.
4. Tyger by SF Said
Pic: Dave McKean
Tyger is set in an alternative, near-future London. This fascinating story depicts a brutal world in which colonialism has continued to espouse slavery. The outsider children, Adam and Zadie, hold in their natures the keys to a better world.
They discover the injured mythic creature, the Tyger, and their own Gifts are revealed to them, promising a new philosophical outlook and the possibility of change in the cruel system.
5. Too Small to Fail by Morris Gleitzman
This story features a big-hearted protagonist. Oliver is a very rich boy who doesn't care about money but does care about a dog in a pet shop. His child concerns are set against a huge and powerful world of financial corporations.
I love the voice in Gleitzman's writing; he shows us how a child thinks and how this can be at odds with the adult world. The ending is full of hope.
6. Little Bits of Sky by S E Durrant
Pic: Katie Harnett
In Little Bits of Sky, we see one child quietly struggling to support and protect another one. Ira and Zac are two children in care, longing to be adopted together and to have a stable home. Ira takes on such responsibility for her brother, reassuring him and wearily repairing relationships with adults.
This book strikes at the heart. Its main character embodies exactly a child's feelings of powerlessness but shows us also her quiet but uplifting heroism.
My Life On Fire is out now.