Who Should We Define as Heroes? a Book Review


I am fascinated by the story of Norman Borlaug, a scientist who saved more people from starvation than anyone in human history. He was raised on a farm in rural Iowa, and developed a keen interest there in wheat growing techniques. He got a Ph.D. in plant pathology, became a successful microbiologist at DuPont Labs, and could have made millions of dollars, but instead he moved to Mexico and, working alongside farmers there, figured out how to grow six times more wheat, and feed one million more people, than ever before.

I had never heard of Norman Borlaug until I read Heroes For My Son by Brad Meltzer. But now I'm inspired to delve into Dr. Borlaug's story. The book is a simple compilation of information about people who Mr. Meltzer chose to feature as examples to his son, whose birth compelled him to write the book. There are 52 heroes, including Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, Oprah Winfrey, and Mr. Rogers. Each hero's contributions get one page each. It is an easy read, only taking about an hour to read from cover to cover. Each page features a picture, a short statement of reason behind his or her selection as a hero, an anecdote containing little-known information about him or her, and a quote by or about him or her.

The concept of the book—that of providing a ready source of inspiration and example for one's children—is a good one, uplifting, almost simplistic.  Mr. Meltzer writes almost lyrically about many "obvious" heroes, ones who have been acknowledged by many as such for many years. There are a few "modern" heroes, like Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg. But there could be many more heroes covered in this book. Meltzer says: "There are thousands of heroes," but he chose only those stories that "wouldn't lecture to [his son], but would show him that if he was determined...the impossible becomes possible."

I am not a Norman Borlaug or a Brad Meltzer, nor do I know anything about Mr. Meltzer's children. But if I were to write a book like this for my two sons, here's what I would do differently:  I would include more heroes of today, those living and breathing and being heroic in these days of rapid technological advancement,  middle eastern war,  scientific discovery, failing economies, and morally dubious leaders. Who we canonize as heroes from the past, from afar as it were, defines us, but who we admire from today, "up close," says so such much more about who we are. While I want my sons to know about the champions from the past featured in Heroes For My Son, I feel the absolute necessity of telling them about the Greg Mortensens and Bill Gates of today, who are heroic because they've crossed borders and built others up based on the common values of education and industry. Heroism today is less about crossing racial lines and more about crossing national lines. It's less about saving our neighborhood and more about saving our planet.

That being said, will I be reading Heroes For My Son to my sons? You bet, so that they too might be inspired and want to learn more.  And maybe I'll publish my own compilation, hopefully to add to the list of people who are making a difference for others that Mr. Meltzer started.

Disclosure: A copy of the book was provided free-of-charge.

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