For our first challenge, let’s hone in on hero stories. We could go a lot of different ways with the idea of heroes, mostly because every story has a hero (whether the hero is likeable or not, or desirable as a role model for our children or not). So let’s narrow our focus to hero stories in two genres: Bible stories and folklore.
What is the importance of hero stories? My husband, a sixth grade teacher, said recently that he can tell who in his classroom has been exposed to hero stories and who hasn’t. Those who have can talk at length about these heroes and others like them—Superman, Robin Hood, historical figures, etc. Those who haven’t have created their own heroes, usually drawing from pop culture icons. They are searching for something to fill the void.
In our family, we try to read Bible stories early and often. These showcase regular people, like Moses, David, and Mary to name a few, whom God used to do mighty and heroic things. Did you know that many libraries have a good selection of Biblical storybooks, whether individual tales or a collection? In many cases, they have been illustrated by excellent artists to aid in children’s comprehension and visualization of the story. Tomie dePaola has a few Bible story collections you might enjoy checking out (in my library these are found in the nonfiction section at J 220.9-232). Here are a couple of his books:
Tall Tales and Legends (subcategories of folklore)
Most tall tales and legends are rooted in heroes who really lived and have been exaggerated, sometimes wildly, over the generations. They usually involve unbelievable strength and/or outlandish feats by the hero. These are so much fun. They feed the child’s imagination and help form their ideas of justice, of goodness over evil, and of the underdog winning against all odds. Most of these books will be shelved in the folklore (nonfiction) section in your library, and not with the regular fictional picture books; they should be found around J 398.2.
Now: Mixed in with these tall tales and legends, you’re going to see your traditional fairy tale books—princesses and all that. But when you actually start looking specifically for tall tales and legends, you may notice something. They are all BOY stories!
Well, that’s how it feels. The truth is, there are girl stories too, BUT you will have to DIG for them. Oh please dig for them. They are so cool. Robert San Souci (burn his name into your memory!) is one of my favorite collectors/retellers of tall tales and legends, and he speaks to the difficulty of actually finding these female-oriented tales in the preface of his book, Cut from the Same Cloth: American Women of Myth, Legend and Tall Tale, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (below). I love that he dug down into American folklore to collect these for our girls (and boys!). You also see pictured another of his strong lady-of-legend books, Young Guinevere. Here are a couple more by him, to drive the point home that San Souci is a name to remember, Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow and Brave Margaret, An Irish Adventure.
Keep in mind, San Souci and other authors mentioned here did not write these stories; they are just retelling these old tales in their own ways.
Here are a couple more female-hero books I found in our library (pictured below). Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls is a collection from Jane Yolen, who is another one of those great author names to know—very prolific. Mark Steven Kellogg down on your list too. I highly recommend his versions of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill; they are favorites of ours. More recently I checked out his Mike Fink, a tall tale from the New Orleans area, and it’s a riot too (pictured below, far right).
Mountain Jack Tales (above) by Gail E. Haley is a collection set in the Appalachians about a traditional folk hero and adventurer, Jack. My son and I became interested in these tales after he got to go see a play called “The Jack Tales” with his school a few months back. This one is a chapter book collection of short stories.
Robert Sabuda also has some great books. He does incredible illustrations and pop-up books. Here is his Arthur and the Sword, with stained glass illustrations (below far left). Hudson Talbott is also a name to check out. His King Arthur: The Sword in the Stone is pictured. Another collection of short hero stories is The Children’s Book of Heroes, collected by William J. Bennett.
These authors and books are only intended to get you started. I urge you to explore these sections in your child’s school library or the public library and get books that look good to YOU. If YOU like it, chances improve that your children will like it too. And if they don’t like it, that’s okay too—we all have reading preferences.
Most of the books shown here will work for kindergarten through middle school. Some will have too much text for K-1 children to sit through. Even though most are picture books, feel free to treat them like chapter books: just read a few pages one night, mark the spot and pick it back up the next night. And YES you are allowed to read picture books with your middle school children! Please do!
You have been challenged. Remember, go find the nonfiction section of your library, around J 220-232 and J 398! I welcome comments below on books you find and what your children liked, whether they came from the list above or not!
More on the spiritual aspects of sharing hero stories with our children on my guest post at Finishing the Race!