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.

A photo of Cath Howe and the front cover of her book My Life on Fire

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

An illustration from the front cover of Adam-2 - a figure walking on some stone steps surrounded by stony buildings

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.

Read our review of Adam-2

2. Anna at War by Helen Peters

An illustration from the front cover of Anna At War - a girl holding an envelope and running through flowers and grass with a big country house in the distance

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

An illustration from the front cover of The Goldfish Boy - a child with a goldfish bowl on his head surrounded by people; the people around the child are mostly coloured blue apart from a few orange highlights

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.

Read our review of The Goldfish Boy

4. Tyger by SF Said

The front cover of Tyger

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.

Read our review of Tyger

5. Too Small to Fail by Morris Gleitzman

An image from the front cover of Too Small to Fail - a huge pile of bank notes, with a boy's head and a dog's head sticking out from it

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.

Read our review of Too Small to Fail

6. Little Bits of Sky by S E Durrant

An illustration from the front cover of Little Bits of Sky - a chair by a window with an envelope on the seat; a blue sky, white clouds and a flying bird can be seen through the window

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.

Read our review of Little Bits of Sky

My Life On Fire is out now.

Read our review

My Life on Fire

Author: Cath Howe

Since her house burned down, Ren has nothing. Surely everyone else deserves to lose stuff too? Friendship and ‘doing the right thing’ are the focus of this excellent novel.

Read more about My Life on Fire

You might also like

Why children need stories about young heroes

Author Na'ima B Robert explains why it's so important for children to read about young people who have made a difference - and how it could inspire them to take action.

Topics: Features

Sign up for our newsletter

Stay up to date with BookTrust by signing up to one of our newsletters and receiving great articles, competitions and updates straight to your inbox.

Join us