Themes in Young Adult Literature: Heroism

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2804

Titles Discussed

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Robert Cormier

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher

Thematic Overview

Throughout literary history, the character of the hero has passed through several stages of evolution. Ancient and prehistoric cultures created myths and legends to make...

(The entire section contains 2804 words.)

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Titles Discussed

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Robert Cormier

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher

Thematic Overview

Throughout literary history, the character of the hero has passed through several stages of evolution. Ancient and prehistoric cultures created myths and legends to make the joys and sorrows of life understandable. Stories explaining tribal origins, beliefs, and customs were peopled with archetypal heroic figures whose feats and bravery engendered a sense of pride in the cultures that originated them. Such heroes as Gilgamesh (Sumerian), Odysseus (Greek), and Aeneas (Roman) helped establish the qualities of the classical archetype. He (most classical heroes were male; female examples such as Antigone, Electra, Hecuba, and Iphigenia did exist, but female heroism was of a different nature, characterized mainly by self-sacrifice and providing aid to men) was a person of high birth, possibly a demigod with supernatural abilities, who operated under the aegis of the gods. For personal honor, he embarked on a quest or goal: to find treasure, to found a new homeland, to explore unfamiliar territory in search of fresh wonders. Over the course of the quest, he performed risky physical deeds and triumphed through a combination of strength, boldness, determination, and cunning.

By the medieval period in Europe, which spanned from the fifth to the fifteenth century, the traditional hero had metamorphosed into a more human, more vulnerable figure. Now reflecting the high morality and complex codes of conduct innate to the concept of chivalry, the hero no longer had to be of noble birth, although he usually still was. His quests were for sacred objects or for victory against worthy opponents who posed a threat to well-being. He fought not so much for personal glory as from a sense of loyalty and obedience owed to his ruler. Beowulf (probably Germanic or Scandinavian), King Arthur (British), Roland (Frankish), and El Cid (Castilian) are all examples of heroes of the medieval period.

By the romantic period, from the mid-eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, the heroic ideal had changed once again, taking a turn toward the antihero in the wake of the revolutionary spirit that charged the age. Class or circumstance of birth no longer mattered; the hero was often an outcast, a brooding, flawed loner who operated beyond the boundaries of a society riddled with corruption. They waged their battles sometimes against the establishment and sometimes against internal demons. Quests were more personal, more passionate, and the journey was as important as the destination. Sidney Carton (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859), Jean Valjean (Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862), Natty “Hawkeye” Bumppo (James Fenimore Cooper, the Leatherstocking Tales, 1827–41), and the title characters of Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy (1817) and Alexandre Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo (1844) collectively demonstrate the various types of the romantic hero.

In the modern era, virtually anyone is capable of becoming a hero, regardless of class, ethnicity, physical appearance, gender, or sexual identity. Contemporary heroes often struggle with personal problems—physical or mental disabilities, substance abuse, sexuality, adherence to unconventional mores—in a chaotic, violent world dominated by faceless bureaucracies imposing arbitrary rules. The modern hero's quest is more modest than those of yore: to find personal meaning through self-discovery, to exist with individual principles intact. Robert Cormier's The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (1983), Chris Crutcher's Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (1993), and Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity (2012) all provide memorable examples of the wide range of modern heroes.


Robert Cormier's The Bumblebee Flies Anyway unfolds at the Complex, a facility where experimental drug tests are conducted by Doctor Lakendorp, known as “the Handyman.” The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of Barney Snow, an apparently normal sixteen-year-old who serves as a control among young terminal patients. Though Billy “the Kidney,” preteen Allie Roon, and formerly handsome sports star Alberto “Mazzo” Mazzofono are all doomed, they have volunteered to undergo tests in hopes of contributing to future cures. The drugs affect each patient differently. Billy, unable to walk, is wheelchair bound. Allie becomes twitchy and stammers. Mazzo, his skin blotchy, is confined to bed. Barney has lost his senses of smell and taste, his memory is sketchy, and he is troubled by recurring nightmares of an impending automobile accident.

The only subject able to move freely about, Barney explores, inside and outside. The Complex is surrounded by a high wooden fence, which Barney scales. From the top, he sees a huge junkyard of wrecked vehicles and what looks like an undamaged red MG; when he examines the sports car more closely, he discovers it is made of balsa wood.

Mazzo, bitter about his disease, convinces Barney to be present when his “spooky” fraternal twin sister, Cassie, visits. Cassie is beautiful, and Barney wants to “be strong and brave for her.” Privately, Cassie tells Barney about “the Thing”: she has always felt the pains her brother experienced, and she wonders if she will die when Mazzo does. When Mazzo, who once enjoyed driving fast cars, expresses a desire to die “in a blaze of glory,” Barney vows to make it happen.

To carry out his promise, Barney sneaks into the junkyard, deconstructs the wooden sports car—nicknamed “the Bumblebee”—and smuggles the pieces into the attic of the facility to reassemble. While doing so, Barney stumbles across a room with a television monitor displaying a scene from his nightmare. The Handyman discovers him and tells him the nightmare was created as a means to block the truth: Barney is also dying.

Barney does not dwell on the troubling news, working tirelessly to complete his task with Billy and Allie's assistance. He finishes the car, transports Mazzo via freight elevator to the attic, and poises the fake car outside a skylight for its final plunge. Though Mazzo dies before he can board, the car rolls down the steep roof and makes no sound when it crashes, creating the impression that it really did fly.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, though downbeat in tone, has a hopeful message as it explores the heroism of terminal volunteers who will never reap the benefits of the tests they undergo. Though the patients have no chance of surviving, they nonetheless unite in a selfless project to grant a fellow sufferer's last wish.

One of more than a dozen young adult novels written by Cormier, Bumblebee uses several symbols to underscore its themes. The fence between the Complex and junkyard, for example, represents a dividing line between the vibrancy of life and the decay of death. The wooden sports car and the image of the non-aerodynamic bumblebee, which flies despite its unwieldy build, symbolize the difference between appearance and reality.

In Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Chris Crutcher explores themes of friendship and loyalty between two teenage outcasts who are both heroic figures. Narrator Eric Calhoune, a.k.a. “Moby” or “Fat Boy,” is a smart, well-read high school senior with a good sense of humor. Obese as a child, he has become a skilled long-distance swimmer. Eric, whose father deserted Eric's mother before he was born, has been best friends for years with motherless Sarah Byrnes, a.k.a. “Scarface,” whose face and hands were horribly disfigured when she was a toddler, allegedly because she accidentally overturned a pot of boiling water. Eric stays overweight to remain a misfit and maintain Sarah's friendship. Eric and Sarah brave the administration's wrath by publishing a satirical school paper, Crispy Pork Rinds (“crispy” for Sarah, “pork” for Eric's size, and “rinds” for the part “no one pays attention to”), aimed at those cruel to underdogs. Eric and Sarah have been through much together, particularly sessions with school bully Dale Thornton. Now there is a new hurdle: Sarah has stopped talking and is under observation at the psychiatric unit of the local hospital. Eric visits frequently, where he encounters Sarah's intimidating father, Virgil.

In school, Eric's favorite class is Contemporary American Thought, taught by his swimming coach, Ms. Lemry. He takes the class along with Sarah, his sacrilegious friend and fellow swimmer Steve Ellerby, pompous rival swimmer Mark Brittain, and Mark's pretty but submissive girlfriend Jody Mueller, on whom Eric has a secret crush. The class discusses controversial issues such as child abuse and racism. When they talk about abortion, battle lines form, with sanctimonious Mark and disciples on the pro-life side and Eric, Ellerby, and others pro-choice. Eric initiates contact with Jody, who privately admits that she underwent an abortion. The father was Mark, who feels people as committed to religion as he is should “get special leeway in the Lord's eyes.” When Mark learns what Jody said, he calls her a liar in class and later attempts suicide via overdose.

At the hospital, Sarah surreptitiously communicates with Eric via coded hand signals. She finally tells him the truth: her father burned her on purpose on a wood stove during an argument with her mother. Her father is becoming more irrational, so she moves into a room at Ms. Lemry's house and returns to school. Ms. Lemry and Sarah travel to Reno in search of Sarah's mother, but when they find her, she is too frightened to testify against Virgil.

Meanwhile, Virgil Byrnes terrorizes Eric over the phone, trying to get him to reveal his daughter's whereabouts so he can ensure her continued silence. Virgil hides in the backseat of Eric's car and threatens him with a knife, but Eric refuses to give up his friend. Eric escapes, but Virgil chases him and stabs him in the back. Eric survives to tell the story to the police, who hunt for Virgil. He is eventually found severely beaten by Eric's mother's latest boyfriend, a former Special Forces soldier who fought in Vietnam. Virgil is ultimately convicted and sentenced to prison, and the Lemrys formally adopt Sarah.

Like many of Crutcher's other young adult novels, including Running Loose (1983), Chinese Handcuffs (1989), and Ironman (1995), Staying Fat uses athletic competition as a framework for the story, focusing on dedication to practice and commitment to a cause. Crutcher's works have frequently been challenged or banned for language or controversial subject matter.

Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity opens with the written chronicle of a young, petite blond woman named Queenie, who begins with a lie: “I am a coward.” Under the code name Verity, she was dropped into France as a spy in late 1943. Captured, she has been held in a former hotel in Ormaie and tortured by the Gestapo until she agreed to tell the Nazis what they want to know.

Given pen and paper, Queenie spins a story, similar to journal entries, over a three-month period. Most of the story concerns her friend Magraret “Maddie” Brodatt, a pilot of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, but it also includes details of airfields, personnel, equipment, and radio codes. The pages are translated from English into German by Anna Engel, a reluctant secretary to Captain Amadeus von Linden of the SS. When the story is complete, Queenie, who ultimately reveals her true name to be Julie Beaufort-Stuart, will be sent to a concentration camp for medical experiments and ultimately, execution.

Part 2 belongs to dark-haired Maddie, code-named Kittyhawk, the pilot who delivered Julie to France, substituting for an injured man. Julie and Maddie's identity papers were inadvertently mixed up: Julie has Maddie's ID, and Maddie has Julie's papers in the name of Katharina Habicht. After Maddie's plane crashes, she is rescued by the French Resistance and hidden in a barn. Meanwhile, Georgia Penn, an American and seeming turncoat making propaganda broadcasts for the Germans, finds and interviews Julie, who gives her coded messages. Georgia passes along information to the Resistance indicating that Julie has given the Nazis obsolete information and invented codes; most of her elaborate story, except for her friendship with Maddie, is fiction. Maddie and the Resistance plan a rescue with the help of Anna Engel, who has a “crisis of conscience” and gives Maddie Julie's writings.

With Maddie along, the Resistance blows up a bridge, stopping a German bus carrying Julie and other prisoners. But the plan goes wrong: Nazi guards begin shooting and maiming the prisoners in reprisal. Before they can harm Julie, she shouts Admiral Horatio Nelson's legendary dying words—“Kiss me, Hardy”—to Maddie, who knows what to do: she shoots and kills Julie. Later, the Resistance carries out a successful attack, blowing up Gestapo headquarters, and Maddie is rescued and returned to England.

The story of a close friendship between two vastly different individuals—the Scottish, wealthy, aristocratic Julie and the Jewish, working-class Maddie—Code Name Verity is a fictionalized account of the very real types of people who worked for the Allied cause during World War II. As the author notes at the end, women did serve as pilots and spies, and some of them died in action. Unlike The Bumblebee Flies Anyway and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, which deal with heroism on a small, personal scale, Code Name Verity looks at individual heroism on a large scale at a time when the fate of the world was in the balance and millions of lives were at risk. Wein has since written a sequel, Rose under Fire (2013), which places a captured female pilot in peril at Ravensbrück concentration camp.


There is a remarkable uniformity of opinion among sociologists, psychologists, and academics that heroes are not only beneficial but necessary to the overall health of a society. This is particularly true in the United States, which, though a relatively young nation, is universally considered the current economic, military, and cultural leader of the world. Role models, whether historical entities (Nathan Hale, Daniel Boone, Sacajawea, Davy Crockett, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr.) or mythical creations (Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Superman, and Wonder Woman) help highlight important milestones of national existence. These are men and women, fashioned out of genuine human experience, whose real or imagined feats Americans can point to with pride. Their stories are used both to entertain and to inculcate respect for cultural values. Heroic principles, positive work ethics, and unyielding perseverance serve as motivational examples for subsequent generations to emulate.

Heroes are especially important for young adults as the contemporary world grows increasingly cynical and fraught with tension. Each day seems to bring new crises from which there is no escape, because every event is endlessly examined from all possible angles in print or broadcast. Controversial issues—abortion, same-sex marriage, income equality, climate change, religious freedom, racism, gun control, fracking, immigration, child abuse—are polarizing the nation into camps of angry adherents unwilling to countenance opposing views. Information overload from myriad media sources that often represent opinion as objective reportage confuses matters further in young minds, equating celebrity with excellence. It is not surprising that in polls teenagers typically name movie, sports, and music stars as their personal heroes. While there is nothing wrong in admiring such individuals for achieving fame and fortune, they do not always provide ideal examples of inspirational behavior worthy of imitation.

In the absence of readily identifiable true heroes, young adult literature does a service by filling the gap, providing characters and situations with which adolescents can identify. Believability is a key concept in such storytelling. Despite some protective and well-meaning adults' long-standing objections to colorfully blunt language, overt sexuality, substance abuse, and similarly controversial traits, fictional heroes must be flawed in the same way as real people. When placed in commonly confronted situations and dealing in realistic fashion with problems that might occur in real life, such heroes can lead by example, teaching without preaching about the difference between right and wrong and educating readers about desirable qualities and behaviors. Unlike in real life, which is often illogical, fictional heroism can bring a semblance of order to a chaotic world, providing a satisfying sense of justice and completeness where it is sorely lacking.

Further Reading

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work. Ed. Phil Cousineau. San Francisco: Harper, 1990. Print.
  • Carter, Regina Sierra. “YA Literature: The Inside and Cover Story.” Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults 3 (2013): n. pag. Web. 13 May 2015. <>.


  • Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Novato: New World, 2008. Print.
  • Cowden, Tami D., Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders. The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes. 2000. Las Vegas: Archetype, 2013. Print.
  • Fike, Matthew A. The One Mind: C. G. Jung and the Future of Literary Criticism. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.
  • Knapp, Bettina. Machine, Metaphor, and the Writer: A Jungian View. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1989. Print.
  • McLuhan, Marshall, and Wilfred Watson. From Cliché to Archetype. 1970. Ed. W. Terrence Gordon. Berkeley: Gingko, 2011. Print.
  • Raglan, FitzRoy Richard Somerset, Baron. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama. 1936. Mineola: Dover, 2011. Print.
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