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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Heroes and their Journeys

I’m giving a talk to a Long Island library conference this Thursday and the theme is “everyday heroes.” I believe they asked me to come because I wrote about the trapped and rescued Chilean miners, whose story has an obvious link to the theme, but as I prepared my power point I began to realize that I’ve been thinking a lot about heroes recently. If we leave the realm of mythology, what is a hero, what makes someone into that paragon of courage? Once upon a time in literary criticism we used to talk about “man” (person) and “moment” and I like that because it really is the situation which creates the opportunity for heroism — but that decision, that choice to act, often does not at first look like what it becomes at the end. Being a hero is linked to being brave — and that choice to speak, to stand out, can come in many guises. Indeed while we all know the Hero’s Journey as a literary trope, it is probably the best way to think of all heroes: people who take one step, then another, then another, until they face the moment of decision for which they are famous. But that big moment would never happen without the small ones.

The key moment for the miners came shortly after they were trapped, when they decided to vote on everything. The choice to trust democracy, and thus one another, saved them. For Kelvin Brown, the Australian driller who was flown over to be the hero, the first choice came in deception — not letting the families see that he did not believe he could save the men. For Brandon Fisher, the Pennsylvania drill bit manufacturer, it was the choice to try to contact the Chilean government when he felt his drill could free the men much more quickly than the one at the mine. For Louis Post, the US Department of Labor official who stood up against the then attorney general in 1920 to demand legal proof that immigrants accused of being traitors actually were ready to harm the United States (in Master of Deceit), the choice came when he was asked to approve deportations based on flimsy or little evidence. He simply chose not to approve until he had proof — leading to a clash that could have cost him his job, but which he won.

Heroes are people who make a single choice to take the path of courage, and then accept the consequence — which often involve a next decision, and a next, and a next. Each brave step makes the next possible. I think we should point this out to young people — you don’t have to be magnificent, you don’t need to compare yourself to the grandest hero, just have the courage to take the first step.


  1. Sue Bartle says:

    Taking that first step can be very scare. For a young person it will mean they must step away from the crowd they are comfortable in and stand up as an individual to stand out in comments or action. It will mean that their peers will criticize them. I believe this act of courage is important to develop their individual voice and person. Unfortunately, in our society we don’t honor people who speak up. Many times the person with courage must stand their ground to a variety of pressures.

    Shirley stated it very well in the comments section of your April 25th blog
    “the actual art of discourse remains flat”

    And ….

    This relates back to your blog of April 25th when you stated that:

    “We need to model not just how we obtain information but how we mold it, shape it, craft it, and announce it as our view, our take, our judgment. Students need that from us — they need to see how it is done, how you leave safe harbors, take risks, announce conclusions, defend them, and leave yourself open to criticism.”

    Personally, when I was a senior in high school I was voted “most argumentative” in the senior class poll. Some people would take this as an insult – but I wear this as a badge of honor because I say to people – yes – I did speak up but it was about important things that people need to understand and not just let things happen inside your school or your community or your country.

    If we offer our students the support they need to speak up then they will become the individuals that we need in society to bring out more discourse and understanding for everyone!

    As educators – librarians we can offer this support everyday when we interact with our students – our library patrons – our next-door neighbors! It is not about us – it is about providing the opportunity to be helping everyone become the best individual in our society that they can be!

    Be willing to listen to all sides of topic! Be a good listener! It is not about you! Reach out and become part of that support network!

  2. Shirley Budhos says:

    Thank you, Sue. My former students still remember my advice, but I have to explain why. I taught in an urban high school with no majority. We had children of all ethnic, national, racial, religious backgrounds, and for me, it was important to encourage girls, especially, to speak up, dissent, and contribute to discussions, activities—to voice their thoughts, so I’d urge them “to interrupt the boys” who always assumed they were in charge.

    And, being the argumentative, assertive girl in high school is certainly good training for the future!

    As for teenagers and their need to be part of a group, that too, worries me nowadays. Consensus for me, because of my background, means there will be a pogrom, metaphorically, of course!
    Our inner voice and conscience must be strengthened by use whenever necessary.

  3. Thank you, Marc.
    I love this topic. People who live courageous lives fascinate me. Time and again in my research I have discovered that heroes in history are often people who have made small decisions one at a time that have led them to acts of great courage. My own desire to be a person of courage had motivated my research and it’s been enlightening and comforting because I believe it has shown me that each of us has the potential to be brave and make a difference. It’s not just certain people who are born courageous, or that one day they jump up and move mountains.

  4. Teresa Beamish says:

    I appreciated your article Marc. I am an aide in an elementary school library and I am wondering if you could recommend some biographies of people who showed courage at one time or another in their lives that would be good read-alouds for grades 1-4.

    Thank you.

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    I am sure there are many, and if you look at sports, politics, civil rights, ecology you’ll find plenty of pioneers — there are a number of Jane Goodall bios in picture book form, the Mira Kalman book on the tugboat that was involved in 9-11 — where both the community that saved the boat, and the boat itself, might be seen as heroic; there are rescue dog hero book,l scientists, the person who invented braille — there are quite a few to choose from in that picture book age.