Exploring the Function of Heroes & Heroines
in Children's Literature
from around the World
ERIC Identifier: ED477609
Publication Date: 2003-12-00
Author: Singh, Manjari - Lu, Mei-Yu
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
"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." by A. Chambers (as cited in Tomlinson, 1998, p.3)
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 (Stan, 2002; Tomlinson, 1998), and what it can mean to live in a particular region,
or time period, or to be male or female (Rockman, 1993).
The purpose of this Digest is to explore how heroes and heroines in children's literature
from around the world help young learners understand and appreciate different cultures.
We 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; and conclude with some resources for
determining good international and multicultural children's literature.
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.
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, and optimism
(Singh, Lin, & Lu, 2002). 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.
AS EXEMPLARS OF CHARACTERS 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
played 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 span ago may
now be those that are the sources of conflict. On the whole, we must take care to
analyze each hero 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 children can be
provided 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
whether this is for young or older readers, for boys or girls. 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):
RESOURCES FOR INTERNATIONAL CHILDREN'S LITERATURE
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.
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.
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
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
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?
There are several 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
For more information, readers may also wish to
consult the following two books:
- "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).
- "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
- 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.
- Finally, a web link created by the Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication containing resources on organizations, reviews sources, booklists, and issues and trends in international children's literature is located at:
This project is funded in part with Federal funds from the US Dept. of Education
(contract number ED-99-CO-0028). The content does not necessarily reflect the views
or policies of the US Department of Education nor does mention of trade names,
commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the US Government. ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.
Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) Board. (1987). (Rev. ed.), "ALSC
Mildred L. Batchelder Award: Terms and criteria". Chicago: American Library
Council of Interracial Books for Children. (1974). "10 Quick ways to analyze children's
books for racism and sexism". New York: The Author. [ED 188 852]
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. [ED 420 071]
Muse, D. (1997). (Ed.), "The New Press guide to multicultural resources for young
people". 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. [EJ 452 692]
Rochman, 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:
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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