What is it that makes us love an underdog? Maybe they help us believe that anything is possible. Or maybe we see a bit of ourselves in them. When I was growing up, I loved the stories about heroes that nobody believed in. It was fun to imagine that the quiet, daydreaming kid who got picked last in kickball could somehow one day be a hero.
Unlikely heroes come in a lot of flavors. Some lack courage, some lack character. Others are reluctant or lazy. Sometimes even the reader doesn’t realize who the hero of the story is until the end of the book.
These five books are kid-friendly, but the writing style and themes make them as entertaining to adults as they are to kids. Each has a different kind of unlikely hero…
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
This was my first ever favorite book, and probably the reason that I read many more. Its hero, Bastian, is a boy who is bullied in school and is feeling all alone following the death of his mother. He steals a book from an antique book store, but as he reads it he finds that the book is actually describing his own actions, including stealing the book. As he reads it he becomes a part of the world he is reading about and begins to lose his ability to return to his old life. Michael Ende creates some of the most visually unique and memorable characters I have ever read and also some of the saddest moments of any story from my childhood.
The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes
I first read this one as an adult, and it’s now one of my all-time favorite books. Wanda Petronski, the book’s true hero, isn’t even one of the main characters. Eleanor Estes has a poetic knack for capturing the feelings of loneliness and hope as Wanda stands at the edge of a circle of girls, gradually stepping closer, mustering the courage to take that first conversational risk. Estes’ writing vividly and sometimes painfully captures so many familiar moments about growing up. To say the story is about empathy and forgiveness is to undersell it, but to say much more would spoil it. It’s one of the most beautifully written books about childhood I have ever seen.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Norton Juster’s creative and playful use of language makes this a great one to read out loud. The subtle layers of meaning and clever puns (yes, there are such things!) throughout the journey make this a fun book to read over and over. Its hero, Milo, is bored with school and pretty much everything else as well. His journey into the strange world known as The Kingdom of Wisdom is, unbeknownst to him, actually the story of him learning to love learning. He discovers that math and language and logic can be fascinating, funny, mysterious things. And Juster’s writing is so multi-layered and entertaining that it’s just as enjoyable to read for an adult as a child.
Holes by Louis Sachar
I love Louis Sachar’s sense of humor. There’s a beautiful absurdity to the situations and characters he creates that both satirizes and celebrates the comic absurdity of the world around us. Holes is about Stanley Yelnats, a boy whose family is cursed with generations of bad luck, who is forced to dig holes in the scorched, dry ground known as Camp Green Lake after being wrongly accused of stealing a pair of shoes. The book interweaves three different time-periods, each with its own fascinating and bizarre set of characters, and ties them together in a perfect holistic tapestry. Each character from each time period and each seemingly random event all tie together to form a beautifully absurd and absolutely perfect ending. Every seemingly insignificant element of the story—from the deadly yellow spotted lizards to the no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather to the steadily-building subplot about onions and peaches—ends up being a vital part of the narrative.
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
And now, the most unlikely hero of all: a rabbit made of china. This is a hero who never talks, never moves, and never even blinks throughout the whole story. And somehow it’s one of the most moving books I’ve ever read. It’s about finding love and experiencing heartbreak and finding love again. But it’s mostly a story of the transformation of the hero from a shallow, self-absorbed shell into a being capable of compassion and love. Kate DiCamillo can make you either love or despise a character in fewer words than any author I know. Her chapters about Sarah Ruth will make grown men cry. That much I can attest to. Edward Tulane is certainly one of the most unlikely heroes in fiction—a hero who never acts. But it’s that very fact that makes his transformation so moving.
Top image from The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)
Brian Hastings has been creating video games with Insomniac Games for 21 years. He helped develop the stories and worlds for Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet and Clank, and now, Song of the Deep. The tie-in novel for the game, also called Song of the Deep, follows the story of Merryn, a twelve-year-old-girl whose father disappears at sea. Believing he’s still alive somewhere below the waves, she builds a tiny submarine to search for him. She never wanted to be a hero. She couldn’t have anticipated the dangers or wonders that lay ahead of her. And maybe that’s what draws us to unlikely heroes – we never know when it might be our turn.