Exploring the Function of Heroes and Heroines in
Children's Literature from Around the World
by Manjari Singh and Mei-Yu Lu
Adapted and Expanded by the Education Oasis Staff
It is through literature that we most intimately enter the hearts and minds and spirits of other people. And what we value in this is the difference as well as the human similarities of others: that way, as C. S. Lewis put it, we become a thousand different people and yet remain ourselves.
  A. Chambers  
If anything has universal appeal among children, it is a good story with heroes and heroines. Stories with rich descriptions of the lives and personalities of inspiring individuals (mythical or real, contemporary or historical) entertain as well as serve as role models for children. Through heroes and heroines of different cultures, children develop an understanding of societal expectations and norms in various parts of the world, and what it can mean to live in a particular region, or time period, or to be male or female.

This article explores how heroes and heroines in children's literature from around the world help young learners understand and appreciate different cultures. We will:

  • consider how protagonists can serve as role models for children
  • discuss how it is possible to obtain insights into universal and culturally specific values and beliefs through stories set in a range of settings
  • look at resources for determining good international and multicultural children's literature
  • offer a list of teacher-tested books
Heroes and Heroines as Role Models
Heroes and heroines often stand out because they have distinctive strengths or personality traits. However, many stories may present an ordinary person leading an ordinary life, who in drawing upon "ordinary" character traits can stand out as being special. Heroes and heroines in good literature are portrayed as complex individuals, so it is necessary to analyze them in a holistic manner by paying special attention to the interplay of both positive and negative traits. Many main characters are strong role models because they rise above their own negative traits or weaknesses and overcome personal challenges. We often find protagonists inspiring because they demonstrate the need for individuals to be resilient and to respond proactively to challenging circumstances. Discussing heroes and heroines with children presents countless opportunities for considering how character traits are expressed in others, and how children can develop positive character traits in themselves.
Heroes and Heroines as Exemplars of Universal Character Traits
A content analysis of award winning children's books from around the world indicates some character traits are universally appreciated. These include:
  • personal courage
  • caring for others
  • perseverance
  • resourcefulness
  • a belief in oneself
  • optimism
Through books, children can see heroes and heroines in different regions respond to issues such as racial, ethnic, and religious strife in ways that demonstrate courage and resilience. While different societies may value similar character traits, how these traits are expressed can vary in different regions. Descriptions indicating cultural variations in how character traits are manifest, help children gain a sensitive understanding of how universal traits can also be unique. By using heroes and heroines to explore the differential impact societal issues have on people around the world, we can delve into examining issues surrounding expressions of individuality, identification with social groups, and strategies for dealing with various forms of discrimination.
Heroes and Heroines as Exemplars of Character Traits Appreciated in Particular Contexts and Time Periods
Heroes and heroines are best understood and appreciated when viewed within the social contexts in which their lives play out. Just as every cultural and ethnic group has its own distinctive system of values and beliefs which reflect unique ways of thinking, behaving, and living, so, too, character traits considered desirable are a unique reflection of a group's value and belief system (Hourihan, 1997). Accordingly, it is important to foster non-judgmental discussions among students about how some cultures may view certain character traits to be positive while others may consider these traits in a negative light.
Actively considering the dynamic nature of social, economic, and political contexts contributes to a thoughtful analysis of the thoughts, emotions, and actions of individual heroes and heroines. We must be careful when making connections between valued character traits in societies in the present and those from different historical periods. At the same time, ever changing present day realities also require us to be cautious in understanding contemporary heroes and their societies. Certain character traits we viewed positively just a few years ago may now be offensive within our societies. Certain realities heroes and heroines took for granted just a short time ago may now be those that are the sources of conflict. On the whole, we must take care to analyze each hero's or heroine's character traits and actions first within the context in which they have been presented, and only then attempt to make meaning of these character traits in a manner that transcends contextual boundaries.
As access to other cultures around the world becomes increasingly easy, it is more important than ever for educators and parents to recognize how they can provide children with opportunities to understand how people in diverse areas live, feel, and think (Marston, 1997). The following section is devoted to criteria useful for selecting and evaluating international children's literature. We have also included some citations that contain bibliographies of exemplary international and multicultural books.
Evaluating and Selecting Criteria for International Children's Literature
There are universal criteria for evaluating and selecting high quality children's literature. However, additional considerations need to be taken into account while introducing books from other countries to children. The following list was developed by synthesizing recommendations from several sources (ALSC Board, 1987; Council of Interracial Books for Children, 1974; Pang, Colvin, Tran, & Barba, 1992; Tomlinson, 2002):
1. Authenticity: While most books are created by authors writing within their own country and in their local language, some books are written by non-native authors. Authors from both groups provide readers with different views—as insiders and outsiders—about a specific culture. The jacket flap and the back of a book are often good places for readers to identify the author's origin, as well as the resources and research he/she used to create the story. This information can be crucial when the author is not from the society in which the story takes place.
2. Context: Context is important in understanding meaning. When introducing children's literature from other countries, some terms and concepts may be unfamiliar to the readers. Wherever possible, readers should be provided with information regarding foreign vocabulary or concepts. This can be integrated into the story, shared as footnotes, or provided in a glossary.
3. Perspectives: Stories and illustrations for children are never neutral, but reflect the world view held by the author/artist. It is therefore critical to check for perspectives toward particular socio-economic and cultural groups both in written text and illustrations.
4. Translation: Translation is the art of recreating a story by remaining true to the tone, style, plot, characterization, and emotion that the original author expressed. Whenever possible, ask people from the particular language group to check the accuracy of concepts, language, and meaning, or even better, to compare the original and translated text.
5. Illustration: High quality illustrations in a picture book not only complement the written text but also provide an alternative way for readers, especially the very young, to interpret the story. Although artist styles and media of presentation may vary, it is important that these styles are true to the characters and the context they depict. While examining illustrations, look at how characters are portrayed (i.e., whether all of them look alike or dress alike). If language symbols such as signboards in a street scene are used, are these orthographically correct?
Resources for International Children's Literature
There are many resources devoted to introducing children's books from around the world, providing annotated bibliographies of these books, and discussing trends and issues in international children's literature. We used three books while writing this article: The New Press Guide to Multicultural Resources for Young Readers (Muse, 1997), The World Through Children's Books (Stan, 2002), and Children's Books from Other Countries (Tomlinson, 1998).
For more information, readers may also wish to consult the following two books: Global Perspectives in Children's Literature, edited by Freeman and Lehman in 2001 (ISBN 0205308627) and Change and Renewal in Children's Literature, by Van Der Walt and Fairer-Wessels, published in 2004 (ISBN 0275981851). In addition, Bookbird, A Journal of International Children's Literature (ISSN 0067377) by International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) also offers valuable information on many facets of international children's literature.
Teacher-Recommended Titles
Picture Books
Our Journey from Tibet: Based on a True Story by Laurie Dolphin; illustrated by Nancy Jo Johnson

Wake Up, World! A Day in the Life of Children Around the World by Beatrice Hollyer
Easy Readers
Our Journey from Tibet: Based on a True Story by Laurie Dolphin; illustrated by Nancy Jo Johnson
Intermediate and Middle (Grades 4-8)

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple by Karen Cushman (America)

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (America; Native American)

Blue Fingers: A Ninja's Tale by Cheryl Aylward Whitesel (Japan; 16 th Century)

Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis (Afghanistan )

Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society by Adeline Yen Mah (China; WWII)

The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph (Dominican Republic)

Crutches by Peter Hartling (Vienna; WWII)

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan (Mexico; America)

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer (Africa)

Good Night, Maman by Norma Fox Mazer (Paris/America; WWII)

Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye (Jerusalem/America)

The Heart of a Chief by Joseph Bruchac (America; Native American)

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan (India)

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata (Japan)

Lost In America by Marilyn Sachs (France/America; WWII)

Mud City by Deborah Ellis (Pakistan)

The Other Side of Truth by Beverley Naidoo (Nigeria/London)

Parrot in the Oven by Victor Martinez; illustrated by Steve Scott (America)

Rebel: A Tibetan Odyssey by Cheryl Aylward Whitesel (Tibet)

Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi (Palestine; Occupied Territories)

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (Korea; 12th Century)

A Stone in My Hand by Cathryn Clinton (Gaza)

The Storyteller’s Beads by Jane Kurtz (Ethiopia)

When My Name was Keoko by Linda Sue Park (Korea; WWII)

Year of No Rain by Alice Mead (Sudan)

Teen Reads

American Chica : Two Worlds, One Childhood by Maria Arana (Peru)

Asphalt Angels by Ineke Holtwijk (Brazil)

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (America)

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier (India/America)

Boys from St. Petri by Bjame Reuter; Translated by Anthea Bell (Denmark; WWII)

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton (South Africa)

Countdown by Ben Mikaelsen (America/Kenya)

The Flame Tree by Richard Lewis (Indonesia)

Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian (Turkey)

Green Angel by Alice Hoffman (America; 9/11 Parable)

A Hand Full of Stars by Rafik Schami; Translated by Rika Lessker (Syria)

Harriet’s Daughter by Marlene Nourbese Philip (Canada/Tobago)

Haveli by Suzanne Fisher Staples (Pakistan)

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (America; Hispanic Culture)

I Miss You, I Miss You! by Peter Pohl; Translated by Kinna Gieth (Sweden)

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic)

The Lady with the Hat by Uri Orlev; Translated by Hillel Halkin (Palestine; Post WWII)

Light Years by Tammar Stein (America/Israel)

Parvana's Journey by Deborah Ellis (Afghanistan )

Pirates! By Celia Rees (Jamaica)

Postcards From No Man's Land by Aidan Chambers (England/Netherlands)

Real Time by by Pnina Moed Kass (Israel)

Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples (Afghanistan/Pakistan)

Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi (Palestine; Occupied Territories)

Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples (Pakistan)

Shiva’s Fire by Suzanne Fisher Staples (India)

Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori (Japan)

The Singing Mountain by Sonia Levitin (Israel)

Song of Be by Lesley Beake (Namibia)

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (America)

A Step from Heaven by An Na (Korea/America)

Swimming in the Monsoon Sea by Shyam Selvadurai (Sri Lanka)

Ties That Bind, Ties That Break by Lensey Namioka (China)

Toning the Sweep by Angela Johnson (America)

Vlad: The Undead by Hanna Lutzen (Denmark/Romania/England)

Zazoo by Richard Mosher (France)

Zlata's Diary by Zlata Filipovic (Sarajevo )


Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) Board. (1987). (Rev. ed.), ALSC Mildred L. Batchelder Award: Terms and Criteria. Chicago: American Library Association.

Hourihan, M. (1997). Deconstructing the Hero: Literary Theory and Children's Literature. New York: Routledge.

Marston, E. (1997). Images of Arabs in American children's literature. In D. Muse (Ed.), The New Press

Guide to Multicultural Resources for Young Readers (pp. 354-357). New York: The New Press.

Muse, D. (1997). (Ed.), The New Press Guide to Multicultural Resources for Young Readers. New York: The New Press.

Pang, V. O., Colvin, C., Tran, M., & Barba, R. H. (1992). Beyond chopsticks and dragons: Selecting Asian-American literature for children. The Reading Teacher, 46(3), 216-224.

Rockman, H. (1993). Against Borders. Chicago: ALA Books.

Singh, M., Lin, C.-H., & Lu, M.-Y. (2002, November). "Heroes and heroines in children's literature around the world". Paper presented at the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention, Atlanta, GA.

Stan, S. (2002). The World Through Children's Books. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Tomlinson, C. M. (1998). Children's Books from Other Countries. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Tomlinson, C. M. (2002). "An Overview of International Children's Literature." In S. Stan (Ed.), The World Through Children's Books. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

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