October 27, 2016
(++++) DEFINING THE ADMIRABLE
Heroes for My Daughter. By Brad Meltzer. Harper. $17.99.
Heroes for My Son. By Brad Meltzer. Harper. $17.99.
Forward: My Story. By Abby Wambach. Harper. $16.99.
Determined to provide his newborn daughter with a list of people she could look up to as she grew, Brad Meltzer wrote Heroes for My Daughter shortly after Lila’s birth in 2011. A new, revised version of the book shows that, for a few years at least, Meltzer’s choices have stood up well – not least because he avoided the politically correct notion of choosing only females for his daughter to admire. In fact, Heroes for My Daughter is attractive for readers unrelated to Meltzer precisely because his choices are such an interesting combination of the mainstream and the determinedly offbeat. Yes, he includes Marie Curie and Helen Keller and Amelia Earhart and Anne Frank and Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and Sojourner Truth and Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks and Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin. All those are fine, admirable, utterly conventional picks. But Meltzer also includes Alex Scott, who was diagnosed with cancer at birth and lived to be only eight years old – and who created, at the age of four, the idea of “Alex’s Lemonade Stand,” a fundraiser for cancer research that has raised more than $45 million. He includes Lisa Simpson, who does not exist: she is the middle child in the cartoon Simpsons family and the family’s smartest member by far. He includes the Three Stooges, not because of their slapstick comedy in general but because one of their movies was the first Hollywood film to make fun of Adolf Hitler – nine months before Charlie Chaplin’s famous The Great Dictator, the Stooges were seen in You Nazty Spy! He includes Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball manager who signed Jackie Robinson. He includes autism activist Temple Grandin, World War II paratrooper Hannah Senesh, and “The Heroes of Flight 93,” whose counterattack on Islamic murderers on September 11, 2001 resulted in a plane crash in a Pennsylvania field rather than at the White House or U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Meltzer is not just eclectic in Heroes for My Daughter: he is invariably thoughtful, analytical, pointed and emotionally involved. Yes, the last three entries in the book are entirely personal: they are Dotty Rubin, Meltzer’s grandmother; Teri Meltzer, his mother; and Cori Flam Meltzer, his wife and Lila’s mom. But in the context of this book, these three completely personal choices are every bit as worthy, every bit as heroic, every bit as meaningful as all the picks of well-known and less-known people in the rest of the book. There are 57 short chapters here, each only two pages long, followed by an invitation to Lila – and every reader – to choose a hero and affix his or her photo, and then followed by blank pages on which to write his or her story. What Heroes for My Daughter shows with acumen and sensitivity is just how many choices are possible, just how varied they can be, and just how meaningful each and every one of them is capable of being.
Meltzer has sons, too – Theo and Jonas – and even before he created his daughter-focused book, Meltzer wrote a son-focused one, in 2009; this book too is now available in a new, revised edition. It is easy to form a picture of Meltzer’s own personal heroes by looking at the ones duplicated between the two books: both contain Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Rosa Parks, for example. And just as in the daughter-oriented book, the son-directed one ends with personal entries, one being (again) Teri Meltzer and the other being Ben Rubin, the author’s grandfather. Beyond that, one element the books share is an understanding that people of both genders can be heroes to both sons and daughters – thank goodness Meltzer does not insist that only women can be girls’ role models and only men can be heroes for boys. Also, Heroes for My Son offers a similar mixture of the expected (or at least well-known) people and ones who are much less familiar. In the former category are rather more baseball players than might be expected – three of them: Roberto Clemente, Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig. Other sports figures appear, too, including Jesse Owens, Pelé and Muhammad Ali. But there are, thank goodness, heroes from other fields as well in the 52 chapters here, including Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, Harry Houdini, Mark Twain, Harper Lee and Steven Spielberg. And then there are less-familiar names: scientist Norman Borlaug, whose development of high-yield, disease-resistant crops saved a billion people from starvation; Dan West, the Indiana farmer whose project of sending livestock to the poor and malnourished became Heifer International; Eli Segal, who helped launch AmeriCorps and for whom, not coincidentally, Meltzer himself worked for a time; and highway-patrol officer Frank Shankwitz, co-founder of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. This book too ends with a choose-your hero section and blank pages to write his or her story. And the message of Heroes for My Son, like that of Heroes for My Daughter, is that some people end up better known, some less known, but either way, people in all walks of life are capable of having a positive, even heroic impact on the world.
Other than Pelé, a possible hero for devoted soccer fans – especially ones who are advocates of same-sex marriage – could certainly be Abby Wambach. But the young readers’ version of her autobiography, Forward: A Memoir – abridged and titled Forward: My Story – is not a particularly compelling book, much less a heroic one. This (+++) presentation of the life of Wambach, who is only 36, seems at the very least premature; and the issues she has dealt with – good and bad life decisions, ambition and uncertainty, love and marriage, success and failure – are not really unusual in any way for people in her age group or, indeed, for those of other ages. What is special about Wambach is her involvement with soccer: she won two Olympic gold medals and was named World Player of the Year by the now-scandal-scarred international soccer federation, FIFA. She also won the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year award – six times. And she played regularly on the U.S. Women’s National Team from 2003 until her retirement in 2015. This book is therefore for soccer fans, who will find the behind-the-scenes information, the triumphs and failures, the perceived slights and injustices, the real teamwork and individual competitiveness, to be worth exploring in a fair amount of detail (although less than in the adult version of the book). But away from the soccer field, Wambach is simply not a particularly interesting storyteller; nor is she one whose interpersonal relationships are all that unusual, once her lesbianism is accepted as an integral part of her story. At times, indeed, she seems to be strikingly without self-awareness, as when she mentions the breakup of her marriage and talks about the necessity of selling her home: she says she “couldn’t imagine staying there, trapped in four thousand square feet of ruined paradise, surrounded by the ghost of dead dreams,” in what is clearly a play for sympathy – but one that ignores the reality that a 4,000-square-foot home is, if not palatial, a very large house indeed, one far beyond what most readers of this book likely live in or to which they can even aspire. Wambach, in her relentless self-focus in this book, is simply tone-deaf to the fans who are its most likely readers. Removing the outer book jacket of Forward: My Story reveals a signed Abby Wambach poster inside, showing her holding the top of an American flag, pointing and looking upward, and wearing a FIFA gold medal. This is carefully designed mass-marketed inspiration. Whether it will inspire readers in some way, and in what way, is an open question. The likelihood is small that non-soccer fans will find anything particularly heroic, or even engaging, in Wambach’s life so far or in her recounting of its ups and downs.