Becoming Heroes, One Book at a Time

Great books can serve as mentors, therapists, and friends—encouraging and inspiring us in our times of need.
Becoming Heroes, One Book at a Time
Biographies give kids real heroes to emulate, inspiring them to perform their own acts of courage and virtue. (Biba Kayewich)
Jeff Minick

Some of us undoubtedly treasure the books we read in our childhood and adolescence about heroes, particularly those in the American Pantheon. Teddy Roosevelt, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, and scores of other famous figures fired up our imaginations, bred the desire to live honorably and do great deeds, and perhaps sparked a lifelong passion for history and biography.

The lives of some of the stalwarts who inspired me in boyhood—Robert E. Lee, Roosevelt, and T.E. Lawrence, known popularly as “Lawrence of Arabia,” come immediately to mind—have remained a part of my reading as an adult. To those, the years have added names such as G.K. Chesterton, Booker T. Washington, and, in particular, Winston Churchill, with half a dozen biographies of that English bulldog on my bookshelves. At various times in my life, an oddball gathering of writers, painters, teachers, and politicians have also served as mentors for work and life.
In “The Truly Great,” Stephen Spender begins his poem with this line, “I think continually of those who were truly great.” It’s a noble and beautiful poem, and we’ll return to it later, but first we might ask, “what’s the point of thinking at all of those who were truly great?” Other than acquiring some knowledge of history, what good will a fourth grader take from a biography of Abraham Lincoln, Jim Thorpe, or Amelia Earhart? What possible lessons might a plumber or stay-at-home mom—or for that matter, a writer and teacher like me—draw from a biography of Churchill, Frederick Douglass, or Abigail Adams?

An Instinct for Imitation

Biographies give kids real heroes to emulate, inspiring them to perform their own acts of courage and virtue. (Biba Kayewich)
Biographies give kids real heroes to emulate, inspiring them to perform their own acts of courage and virtue. (Biba Kayewich)

The word hero appropriately derives from the ancient Greek heros. After all, it was the Greeks who celebrated and sought to emulate the great deeds done by Homer’s warriors in the Trojan War. They also revered their own historical lionhearts as models for virtue and courage. The Spartan king Leonidas, the Athenian philosopher Socrates, and, of course, Alexander the Great were so venerated in their own time that not only their names but their words and deeds have come down to us. This longevity of their reputation shows that, like the Greeks, we, too, esteem those who act with courage, achieve greatly, and live honorably, no matter their time or place.

And like the Greeks, we seem possessed by some instinct to emulate those who would make us bigger and better than our present selves. We know this inclination exists by observing any 4-year-old waving a stick for a sword while vanquishing his imaginary enemies, or the 6-year-old who decks herself out as Wonder Woman on Halloween.

Unfortunately, this proclivity for imitation isn’t always positive. An adolescent nourished by the biographies of American figures such as Sojourner Truth, Thomas Jefferson, and Boone will have a healthier worldview than the one fed a diet of rap music and pop culture or the teen who wants to copycat some unhinged influencer on social media.

So if we wish to give the best of real-life heroes to our young, we might start with some books.

For the Children’s Sake

On a recent trip to our local public library, I visited the children’s department, where a 25-foot-long row of shelves held hundreds of biographies. From all these titles, I pulled at random Len Canter’s “Babe Ruth,” which is part of the “Heroes of America” series; Dave and Neta Jackson’s “Listen for the Whippoorwill,” a Trailblazer book about Harriet Tubman; Genevieve Foster’s classic “The World of Capt. John Smith;” and Albert Marrin’s “Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Modern America.” To my delight, I even discovered several of the “Childhood of Famous Americans” series that had enchanted me in my early school days.

From all of these stories and many, many more, young people can learn more about the history of America, which is a good thing, particularly in these days, when Americans of all ages are increasingly ignorant about their country’s past. Perhaps more importantly, the readers of these books will find ordinary men and women who, by dint of bravery, conscience, and talent, faced and overcame enormous obstacles, and in doing so, bettered the lives of those around them.

Referring to the thinkers who came before him, Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Reading biographies of virtuous men and women offers our children a similar perch on those shoulders.

Uplifting Our Hearts and Minds

Biographies and autobiographies offer these same mountaintop vistas for adults. They can act as mentors, therapists, and friends.
Want a dose of personal persistence in the face of overwhelming odds? Read about George Washington during the bleak winter at Valley Forge, or the dark winter of 1940, when Churchill and his fellow Brits stood alone and outgunned against the forces of Nazi Germany. Looking for some bravery on the female front? Open up Yeonmi Park’s “In Order to Live,” an account of her escape from the dictatorship and slavery of North Korea, or Diet Eman’s “Things We Couldn’t Say,” in which she tells her story of rescuing Jews in Holland during World War II—actions that resulted in the death of her fiancé and her own imprisonment. In these stories and many more, you’ll find some iron to stiffen your spine.
Need encouragement and grace in your marriage or love life? Read “Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage,” written by her daughter Mary Soames. Try “Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy” by Simone Troisi and Cristiana Paccini, the sad but ultimately joyous tale of the faith of a young mother who blessed her baby with life while dying of cancer. If you’re searching for an example of a strong marriage often challenged by separation and hardship, read Edith Gelles’s “Abigail & John: Portrait of a Marriage.”
Whether we’re trying to beat a vice, nourish a virtue, or imbue our young with standards of morality and behavior that will last a lifetime, a library of biographies is ours for the asking.

Feted by the Waving Grass

Ours is the age of the anti-hero. All too often, we point to the warts and blemishes of our ancestors rather than to their heroic virtues. The current standing of our Founding Fathers is a prime example of this tendency. Their accomplishments and rectitude, their sacrifices and courage, have in this new century been eroded, broken down, and worn away by charges of colonialism, slavery, racism, and sexism. Some critics besmirch these men with the label “dead white males,” as though William Penn, George Washington, James Madison, and so many others have nothing to teach us.
It wasn’t always so. Plutarch’s “Lives” were intended as a guide for leadership and honor for young and old, a nuanced approach to the virtue and vice in famous men. John Adams, Jefferson, and other founders looked to these ancient Romans as exemplars for living. Lincoln, in turn, found his heroes in these men and, in particular, admired George Washington.
In his 1981 inauguration address, President Ronald Reagan explained that he found heroes among ordinary Americans—in people like you and me. “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes—they just don’t know where to look,” he said. “You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. There are individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet but deep. Their values sustain our national life.”
Along these same lines, Spender ends “The Truly Great” with this stanza, reminding us that we are all called to heroic virtue:
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields, See how these names are fêted by the waving grass And by the streamers of white cloud And whispers of wind in the listening sky. The names of those who in their lives fought for life, Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre. Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun And left the vivid air signed with their honor.
The inspirational stories of the living and the dead invite the rest of us to travel with them toward the sun.


Biographies: A Sampling to Get You Started

The selection of biographies and autobiographies below is only a drop in an ocean of such books and is intended here only as a sampling of great life stories you might read. For children in kindergarten and early elementary school, parents should browse the shelves of their public library and select biographies that might appeal to their children.

Grades 3–6

Childhood of Famous Americans“ series
Benjamin Franklin“ and other biographies by Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaire
Abraham Lincoln’s World“ and other biographies by Genevieve Foster
Heroes of America“ series

Teens and Adults

The Hiding Place“ by Corrie Ten Boom
84, Charing Cross Road“ by Helene Hanff
John Adams“ by David McCullough
Joni: An Unforgettable Story“ by Joni Eareckson Tada
Death Be Not Proud: A Memoir“ by John Gunther
Up From Slavery“ by Booker T. Washington
Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography“ by Jean Harvey Baker
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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