Here's for Heroes

by Kathie Johnson

I have a large section in my children's library that I call "Hero Tales." There might be a better way to categorize the books that are there, but that's what I call it. The books in this section include the many stories of King Arthur and his knights, Robin Hood, Odysseus, Beowulf, William Tell, Jason, Saint George, Charlemagne, and others. Because the stories are from earlier times, most of the heroes are men.

But what is a hero anyway? The common thread linking all the people I've named is that they were men who "adventured." They went on quests, fought great battles, took risks to accomplish something they thought was important. They tended to be men of strength, courage, and often wisdom. They tended also to be leaders of men. They were all flawed in character (as we all are), but they generally had some shining qualities as well. Their stories are engrossing and enlarge the everyday lives we lead. Good discussions can spring up from reading these tales with kids, particularly as to just what the character traits were that allowed the heroes to accomplish what they did.


There are a number of collections of hero tales. An older book by H. W. Mabie, titled Heroes Every Child Should Know, includes biblical heroes as well as King Arthur, Roland, The Cid, Robert the Bruce, and many others. Medieval Tales That Kids Can Read & Tell, by Lorna Czarnota, includes the stories of William Tell, Robin Hood, Joan of Arc, Beowulf, Charlemagne, and Saladin, among others. Other wide-ranging collections include The Great Deeds of Superheroes by Maurice Saxby (with full-page illustrations); The Age of Chivalry by Thomas Bulfinch, which contains many jewel-like illustrations; Favorite Medieval Tales by Mary Pope Osborne; Women Warriors by Marianna Mayer (the only name I recognized beforehand is Boadicea); and The Big Book of Knights, Nobles & Knaves, edited by Alissa Heyman.

Picture Books

For younger children, there are many picture-style books in this category. On Beowulf, probably the best one is The Hero Beowulf, by Eric Kimmel, which contains more pictures than words. James Rumford's book on Beowulf has more words and fiercer text, but it also contains wonderful pictures. Carol Heyer has written a good Robin Hood with rich illustrations, and Robert San Souci has a nice Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow with lots of pictures. There are quite a few Ladybird books (these have text on one side and pictures on the other for each spread) about heroes. Among them are The Ambush, a tale of Robin Hood; William Tell; and several volumes on King Arthur, including Mysteries of Merlin and Sir Lancelot of
the Lake

Robert D. San Souci has done several beautifully illustrated books on the Arthurian characters in their youth, including Young Arthur, Young Guinevere, Young Lancelot, and Young Merlin. Hudson Talbott has done a handsomely illustrated Tales of King
series as well; his volumes include Excalibur, Lancelot, and King Arthur and the Round Table. Margaret Hodges has done a lovely retelling of the Arthurian tale The Kitchen Knight, and her Saint George and the Dragon is a classic. Terry Small has done a good job with The Legend of William Tell. Part of the story of Odysseus is told in three picture-book versions of The Trojan Horse, one by Emily Little, another by Albert Lorenz (this one is more like a graphic novel), and a third by Warwick Hutton, who does his own illustrations. At least three comic-strip-style books, all by Marcia Williams, are also in my Hero Tales section. They are The Iliad and the Odyssey, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Chapter Books

There are several books in this category that are perfect for the "middle-level" child. These are what kids call "chapter books": not too long, and usually containing larger print than thicker books. Included here would be Gerald Morris's series, The Knights' Tales, which tell stories of individual knights, such as Sir Balin the Ill-Fated and Sir Gawain the True. Mary Pope Osborne (a favorite for her Magic Tree House stories) has done a good series of books on Odysseus at a comfortable reading level; this series has been collected into a two-volume set. An old favorite is Clyde Robert Bulla's The Sword in the Tree. Margaret Hodges's Merlin and the Making of the King has illustrations resembling manuscript illuminations, and her Of Swords and Sorcerers has powerful black-and-white pictures. Ian Serraillier's Beowulf the Warrior, which has strong woodcuts, is at this reading level as well, as are Katherine Paterson's Parzival and Mary and Conrad Buff's The Apple and the Arrow, on William Tell.

For Older Kids

For older kids, there are many choices of heroic tales. I'll just list a few by well-liked authors. One of my favorite authors is Rosemary Sutcliff, who has done Beowulf (alternately titled Dragon Slayer); several books about Arthur, including The Light Beyond the Forest; and the two Homeric epics, Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad, and The Wanderings of Odysseus. The last two have lovely pictures in the margins. Another well-liked author is Roger Lancelyn Green, who has written The Luck of Troy and The Tale of Troy, as well as books on King Arthur and Robin Hood.

Padraic Colum has written The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles, and The Children's Homer: The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy, the latter published in two editions. One is illustrated with sparse line drawings, while the other, published with a slightly different title, has some full-color pages. Other "classic" authors who have put out books about Arthur and Robin Hood are Andrew Lang and Howard Pyle.

Home-schoolers often like DK Eyewitness books. These are well illustrated with lots of explanations of people, places, customs, and so forth. Among the heroic tales available are Robin Hood by Neil Philip, The Odyssey by Adrian Mitchell, and Trojan Horse by David Clement-Davies. There are many more options for "hero tales," especially about King Arthur, but these will get you started.  

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

more on childrens books from the online archives

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