Unlikely Heroes

Hunger GamesTeaching thematically allows us to develop inspired units of study based on big, deep, essential questions that lead kids to think about important life ideas and that guide them toward developing their own personal philosophies. One of my favorite essential questions is “What defines a hero?”—in other words, what are the traits and attributes that collectively make someone heroic? Bravery? Compassion? Superior skills?

My favorite literary heroes are of the unlikely variety—characters who become champions, even if they didn’t originally set out to be heroic; characters who don’t necessarily seem destined for greatness but surprise you with their determination and bravery. They get under your skin and you root for them to succeed…and they do.

We might agree that Bilbo Baggins, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Katniss Everdeen all epitomize a sort of reluctant heroism. Other unlikely heroes of note include Stanley Yelnats of Holes by Louis Sachar, Despereaux Tilling of The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, Ed Kennedy from I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak, and Gabriel King of The Liberation of Gabriel King by K. L. Going.

Which characters from this year’s crop of children’s and young adult literature are unlikely heroes? The teachers and librarians in Mackin’s classroom services department and the next-door opening day collections department have been discussing this question, and we came up with a short list of our favorite (somewhat-)unlikely heroes from titles published in the past year.

Of these titles, three are about World War II—a dire time in Europe that decidedly molded many real-life unlikely heroes as well as fictional ones.

Code Name VerityMaddie Brodatt in Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein becomes many things within the timespan of the book—the beginning of the war through the year 1943—including an unlikely hero. This amazing novel is told from the perspectives of Julie, a British spy being held captive in occupied France, and Maddie, a wartime pilot and Julie’s best friend. Although both young women are heroic, Maddie’s rise from bike mechanic to wartime pilot and hero surprises even her. This may be my favorite book of 2012!

*Lina Bilkas in Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Espen in Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus

Other unlikely heroes from 2012:


In Safekeeping by Karen Hesse, Radley Parker-Hughes has grown up in a loving family, with few worries or cares. Upon graduation, Radley goes to volunteer at an orphanage in Haiti, but the dire political situation in the U.S. convinces her to rush home to her parents—who aren’t there. Radley must figure out how to survive as she escapes to save her life—and that of another person as well.

Augie Pullman of Wonder by R. J. Palacio

*This title was first released in 2011; look for a new title by Sepetys in February of 2013. Out of the Easy is another historical novel—set in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1950—for a slightly older audience.

Who are your favorite unlikely heroes in children’s and YA novels?

Bibliography of titles for Unlikely Heroes theme:

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. 9780399254123. 2012. Gr 7-12.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. 9781423152194. 2012. Gr 9-12.

The Harry Potter series by R. K. Rowling. Gr 4-9.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. 9780618968633. 2007. Gr 5-Adult.

Holes by Louis Sachar. 9780374332662. 2008. Gr 5-8.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Gr 7-12.

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak. 9780375830990. 2006. Gr 9-12.

The Liberation of Gabriel King by K. L. Going. 9780399239915. 2005. Gr 4-6.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians series by Rick Riordan. Gr 5-8.

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse. 9781250011343. 2012. Gr 7-12.

Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus. 9781419704246. 2012. Gr 6-8.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. 9780763617226. 2003. Gr 3-6.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio. 9780375969027. 2012. Gr 3-6.

Lori Blogger: Lori C.