The best-selling author Brad Meltzer has a bit of a Superman obsession. He collects all manner of Superman memorabilia and has even worked the theme into one of his recent suspense novels. But when his son was born, Meltzer thought hard about what the word hero really means. So he started writing a little book on the side that would include a collection of real-life, flesh-and-blood heroes that he would eventually present to his son, who is now 8 years old.
Heroes for My Son includes short stories from the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Mr. Rogers and Jackie Robinson, among 48 others. And despite the book's title, Meltzer, who has three children, including a daughter, says the people he wrote about should be inspiring to any child.
"The one thing you need, in my mind, to be a hero is you have to help someone," Meltzer tells NPR's Michele Norris. There's not a single hero in there that I wouldn't also think is appropriate for my daughter." Just in case a young girl has trouble with the equality of that notion, he's got a contingency plan in the works already.
"I made one deal when I sold this book. I told the publisher, 'It must be a two-book deal.' So I'm working right now on Heroes for My Daughter," Meltzer says. "I will tell you my son is very happy to have the book. My daughter comes into my office every day and says, 'Is my book done yet?' "
Meltzer says that he wanted to include all sorts of heroes in the book, but that the criteria for selection started with that one characteristic: "You have to help someone."
That help can be direct assistance, as in the story of Mother Teresa, or inspirational, like Jackie Robinson.
"There was a story I found about a police officer named Frank Shankwitz," Meltzer says, who met a little boy with leukemia who wanted to be a police officer. "So Shankwitz got him a little police uniform and a little badge. The boy fell into a coma — this is a true story — while the boy is in his coma, Shankwitz goes into his hospital room, and as he pins the badge onto his body, the boy wakes up and smiles. And then he goes back into the coma. He later dies, but on the plane flight home from the boy's funeral, this police officer looked at his friend and said 'You know, we made that kid really happy for one day. We should do that for other kids.' And that's how the Make-A-Wish foundation is born."
The thing he loves most about his book, Meltzer says, is the fact that it showed him that there are heroes everywhere. "I'd say 80 percent of the people in the book you've heard of, but I really wanted to have 20 percent that you never knew were out there but inspire you nonetheless." Eli Segal is one of those lesser-known figures. The former CEO of the Americorps service organization was also one of Meltzer's own mentors.
"He gave me my first real grown-up job," Meltzer says. Segal would take the young Meltzer into meetings with high-powered executives and introduce him as a law school graduate even though he was barely out of college. "When we'd get to the elevator and the doors would close, he'd say, 'You know why I said you went to law school even though I knew you didn't?' And I'd say, 'Why?' And he'd say, 'Because I wanted them to listen to what you were saying and they wouldn't listen otherwise.' He's in the book solely for that idea of believing in the idealism of young people and one of my favorite personal ones in there."
Might a child, presented with this story, simply focus on the fact that Segal was lying? Meltzer says that's just the kind of conversation he hopes his book will ignite.
"I think the best part of this book is that you have to talk to your child with it. And that's the fun of it," he says.
He got a glimpse of that particular effect the night he first read from the book to his son. Meltzer says his son, "a little jock," wanted to hear about the sports figures in the book, so Dad turned to the story of Puerto Rican baseball star Roberto Clemente. After the end of the 1972 season, Clemente organized a relief effort for victims of a massive earthquake in Nicaragua. When he learned that the three planes full of medicine and food he had sent had been diverted by corrupt government officials, Clemente decided to accompany the fourth flight himself. Overloaded, the plane crashed into the ocean, killing everyone aboard. Meltzer says he included Clemente's story not "because he died; he's a hero because of why he got onboard."
"So now I'm reading this story with my son and I'm so excited and he's going to be inspired forever, and as I'm reading with him I can physically feel him shrinking in my arms. I can feel the air leaving his lungs because he's scared," Meltzer says. "And now I'm terrified that I've wrecked my boy." But the next night, his son jumped into bed and asked for more.
"I said, 'Weren't you scared about Roberto Clemente?' And he said, 'No, I love him.' And I said, 'Why do you love him?' And he says, 'Because he risked his life to help those people.' And I just realized in that moment that you can't teach about heroes without teaching about the lows," Meltzer says. "The whole point of the book is to kind of share these moments together and have these discussions that you otherwise would never have."
The point of the book, Meltzer says, was not simply to locate amazing people with inspiring stories, but, as he puts it, "to find the singular moment that makes them great." For Meltzer, Lucille Ball fit that bill.
"In her house when she was growing up she had this really really horrible grandmother who used to ban all the mirrors in her house because she thought vanity was a sin," Meltzer says. "Lucy had no friends. She would play in the chicken coop and for friends she had chickens." To amuse herself on trolley car rides when she was a girl, Ball would make faces into the windows of the trolley cars. "Because she had no mirrors in her house," Meltzer explains. "I wanted my boy to hear that humor can take on anything."
Meltzer also includes a quote from Ball that is perhaps, he says, the most important lesson in the book: "Love yourself first and everything falls into line."
"If I could pick one lesson to teach my son, that's it. I want him to have perseverance, I want him to have kindness, but it's the battle we all fight with ourselves every day to accept ourselves for who we are," he says.
That's a lesson Meltzer's mother, who died from breast cancer two years ago, helped him learn.
"My publisher was shutting down and it was really the worst day in my professional life," Meltzer says. "I didn't know if anyone was going to take over my contract. And I was talking to my mom on the phone, telling her how terrified I was, and there was this long pause [and] my mom said to me, 'I'd love you if you were a garbageman.' And to this day, every single day that I sit down to write, I say those words to myself."
That story made its way into Heroes for My Son too. Meltzer's mother — and her inspirational words — occupy two pages near the back of the book.
"That story is not just for my mother. That's for every mother out there. And it's really why the last pages in the book are really the most important pages in the book. They're two blank pages where people can put in their story from their family. And I really think that's going to be the most beautiful page of all."