Set in Oahu, Hawaii, in 1941, Heroes by Alan Gratz is a novel about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Two thirteen-year-old boys: Stanley Summer and Frank McCoy, whose fathers are pilots for the U.S. Navy, bond over their love of comic books. The two see the fleet of ships on Battleship Row as a metaphor for superheroes: the Justice Society of America.

Frank is a writer and Stanley an illustrator. Together, they invent characters, write their origin stories, and draw them into situations where they emerge as heroes. However, Frank feels a bit like a fraud. Ever since The Incident in Florida, their last military post, Frank has been cautious and careful so as to avoid getting sucked into a whirlpool of fear.  Because he is always calculating what can go wrong, risk assessment is Frank’s superpower. After Frank avoids a fight with two bullies: Arthur and Johnny, Stanley angrily asks, “How do you think you can write about heroes if you can’t be one yourself?” (29).

As the story plays out, Frank must decide who the real Frank McCoy is. Is he the one who chickens out, the one who freezes up when the going gets tough, or can he be brave in the face of danger, stand up for his friends in a fight, and help people when they are in trouble?

As Frank sorts out the confusion and determines the difference between fighting for his friends versus fighting alongside them, he learns that help means help, not simply acting as a savior figure.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changes everything for the two friends. Stanley not only learns about The Incident but gains his own fears from firsthand experience. Together, the two navigate their new circumstances and realize “It’s not being scared that matters. . . . It’s what you do when you’re scared that counts” (204). The war—“like some comic book supervillain—“ (219) threatens to destroy the creative world the pair has built together.

Gratz’s novel makes a horrible piece of history come to life for tween readers as they explore the question: How does a friendship between an American of Japanese Ancestry and one who is White survive the aftermath of such destruction?

  • Posted by Donna

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