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Review: How to be a Hero

Maughn Gregory

Review of How to be a Hero by Florence Parry Heide (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2016).

Being a “nice boy,” living in a “nice house” with “nice parents and lots of toys” ought to be “enough for anyone,” the narrator of this intriguing, off-beat story tells us. “Well, it wasn’t enough for Gideon. Gideon […] wanted to be a hero. You know, a hero, with his name on the front page of the newspaper. That sort of thing.” Gideon’s bedroom walls are covered with colorful drawings in which he appears climbing a tower, climbing a beanstalk, fighting a dragon in chainmail, and flying through the air wearing a red cape that resembles the red towel he ties around his neck while menacing teddy bears with a wooden sword.

Gideon’s quest begins with a clear-cut episode of philosophical inquiry, starting from the question, “So how does anyone get to be a hero, anyway?” His wondering leads him to three criteria: “You have to be strong. You have to be brave. You have to be clever. Don’t you?” Gideon is clever enough to test his criteria against the examples of characters he takes to be heroes in fairy tales he knows, like the one who rescued a princess by using her long hair to climb the tower where she was imprisoned, the one who woke a princess from an enchanted sleep brought on by a witch’s poisoned apple by kissing her, the one who found a glass slipper lost by a young women attending his party, and (Gideon’s favorite) the kid who climbed up a big vine and sneaked off with a bunch of “good stuff” that belonged to a sleeping giant. “Gideon thought about how all those guys turned out to be heroes, and he decided they hadn’t really had to do anything or be anything.[…] They just had to be at the right place at the right time.” Had Gideon’s story ended there, it would be a worthwhile exercise in deconstructing the gender politics of traditional fairy tales.

However, convinced he has figured out how to be a hero, Gideon ventures into town—red cape in place—where he “paid attention” and “kept his eyes open” for the right opportunity. And here the story turns comically satirical: because Gideon looks for “someone who was sleeping or someone with unusually long hair, or [a] glass slipper or any beans,” he misses chances to be of real help to people around him: a man whose dog has run off, a girl whose cat has climbed a tree but is too afraid to climb back down, an elderly woman about to cross a busy street, and a very young boy in tears who seems to be lost. These situations are not mentioned by our narrator but portrayed in the illustrations, so that spotting one prompts the reader to look for more, and suddenly appreciate the irony of Gideon’s misplaced attention.

In fact, this comically wry story presents a clear instance of what the late American philosopher Gareth B. Matthews (2005) called “Philosophical Story Irony,” in which a character believes something the reader knows not to be true, which the reader won’t be able to explain without doing some philosophical work. Gideon’s wrong-headed notion of heroism is confirmed in his own mind when buying a candy bar makes him the ten thousandth customer at the local supermarket, and he is celebrated with “balloons and flowers and cakes” and with people “taking pictures, clapping him on the back, congratulating him.” He is rewarded with his name and photo in the newspaper and the promise of “a candy bar anytime he felt like having one.” “He was a hero,” the narrator concludes, “All because he had managed to be at the right place at the right time. Good!” But while the narrator has told what happens to Gideon, the illustrator has told a very different story of heroism: A mother carrying a baby in the supermarket steps on a spilled apple, tossing her baby into the air (right over Gideon’s head!) and a young, female store clerk (not incidentally, the only person of color in the book) catches the baby. In the final image, the clerk poses with mother, baby, and supermarket manager for the newspaper photographer, while oblivious, self-satisfied Gideon is seen walking home, clutching his balloons and candy bar.

“So how does anyone get to be a hero, anyway?” If fame is not sufficient is it at least necessary? Does heroism come in different kinds, like the kind that comes from extraordinary ability, from disciplined accomplishment, and from accidental celebrity? Is a person who does something heroic only or partly for the sake of celebrity any less a hero? In our contemporary world of influencers, internet memes, political rallies, and viral videos, have ambition and charisma become another kind of heroism? (The back cover of the book depicts Gideon as Napoleon.)

The book’s jacket suggests that Florence Parry Heide (author) and Chuck Groenink (illustrator) “explore how we choose our idols in a witty story that leaves the real nature of heroism for the reader to choose.” And so it does. Many amateur online reviewers of the book recommend that it be discussed between adults and children, especially because they worry that its irony will be lost on its young audience. Matthews, who convincingly laid that worry to rest, would nevertheless applaud that recommendation—for the benefit of adults as much as of children.

Reference:

Matthews, Gareth B. (2005) Children, Irony and Philosophy. Theory and Research in Education 3(1): 81-95.