Lancaster Newspapers April 4, 2023 MIKE ANDRELCZYK | Staff Writer
Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. are all names you’d expect to find in a book of 60 American heroes, but what about John Herrington, Katherine Johnson or Marian Wright Edelman?
While these last three names may not be as familiar to some readers as the first three, in a newly revised and expanded edition of “50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet,” now titled “60 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet,” Lancaster County-based authors Dennis Denenberg and Lorraine Roscoe make the case that they should be.
Herrington is an astronaut and engineer who, in 2002, became the first Native American to go to space. Johnson was a mathematical genius who worked for NASA. And Wright Edelman is a lawyer, activist and author who founded the Children’s Defense Fund.
Herrington, Johnson and Wright Edelman are three of 10 new heroes added to the expanded version of the book.
Other additions to “Heroes” include Vice President Kamala Harris, Chief Medical Advisor to the President Anthony Fauci, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, poet Amanda Gorman, the late football star and humanitarian Walter Payton, the late children’s TV host Fred Rogers and singer/songwriter and philanthropist Dolly Parton.
Denenberg says he’s especially excited about that last name on the list.
“The No. 1 new person that Lori and I added that we’re so thrilled with is Dolly Parton,” says Denenberg, of Lancaster. “This is an individual who not just made her fame in music, but she is a true humanitarian and she’s never forgotten where she came from. She’s a beautiful human being.”
The newly revised and expanded list features heroes from a wide range of fields of endeavors, backgrounds and time periods, from explorers to architects to athletes.
“Every athlete in the book gave back,” Denenberg says. “I think No. 1 is Roberto Clemente. He was a great humanitarian. He gave his life for people he didn’t know.”
How does Denenberg define a hero?
“We define hero very broadly,” Denenberg, 75, says. “A hero is a person who makes the world a better place.”
The original “50 Heroes Every Kid Should Meet” came out in 2001 and has sold more than 100,000 copies, Denenberg says. A revised edition, in which 10 people were dropped from the list and 10 new heroes were added, was released in 2016. The latest version was published by Millport Press, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group, on Aug. 2.
“I call it the book that will never die,” Denenberg says.
In 2021, Denenberg and Roscoe pitched the idea of a new edition of the book featuring a special tribute to health care workers, and Lerner Publishing Group suggested they choose 10 new heroes from a list they supplied.
The list is diverse and inclusive, but Denenberg says that wasn’t necessarily the focus when choosing the new heroes.
“We went for achievement,” Denenberg says. “Do we have enough writers? Do we have enough scientists? If we tried to balance it with anything, we tried to balance it with achievements.”
One name that wasn’t on the list that the publishers supplied but made the final cut is Fred Rogers.
“We fought for Mister Rogers,” Denenberg says. “He was not on the original list of 15 sent by the publisher and we thought, no, we have to have Mister Rogers. And we defended why he was still important for kids. Nobody personified love for kids like Mister Rogers.”
Denenberg, who taught a class about methods to teach history for elementary school at Millersville University, says reevaluating historical figures is important when compiling a list like this.
For instance, because of recent scandals surrounding his personal life, Bill Gates won’t be found in the latest edition of “Heroes.” Madam C.J. Walker, a 20th-century businesswoman and the first Black woman to become a self-made millionaire, was included in his place. Comedian Bill Cosby, the subject of numerous sexual assault allegations, and Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee were removed from the list in 2016. Denenberg says it’s a process of examining
history, not erasing it.
“We had Lee in the book because of his courage to surrender,” Denenberg says. “That was the whole focus. But as history has reexamined Lee and the Civil War period, we just did not feel that he even deserved to be in the book, period.”
Denenberg says that none of the people on the list is perfect.
“No hero is perfect. Every one of those 60 has a flaw. Take a local hero, Milton Hershey: He literally gave all of his wealth away. Was he prejudiced? Absolutely. The orphanages were for white boys only,” Denenberg says. (The Milton Hershey School was founded in 1910 and originally only for white male orphans, but expanded in the ’60s and ’70s to include girls and racial minorities.) “He was a product of his times. Now anyone is welcome and can be supported by Hershey money.”
Hershey remains on the list. And so does Denenberg’s favorite hero, who he acknowledges was also not without his flaws.
“My No. 1 hero has always been Thomas Jefferson,” Denenberg says. “I went to William and Mary because that’s where Thomas Jefferson went to school. He was possibly the most brilliant American ever, but he had a fatal flaw. He enslaved people. They are what generated his wealth. It’s very hard for me in my mind to accept the fact that even upon his passing he did not free his slaves like Washington did.”
The latest edition of the book, which is targeted for middle school students but will be illuminating for readers of all ages, is a great learning tool. The book includes images, a short introductory biographical segment, quotes and opportunities to learn more about each hero by reading more about each of them on suggested websites or books.
“We’ve been criticized because it doesn’t go deep enough, but that’s not the purpose of the book. It’s to acquaint you with these heroes, and hopefully you’ll explore them more on their own,” Denenberg says, while acknowledging that each of these heroes could (and many do) have multiple biographies written about them.
The new book not only encourages readers to familiarize themselves with lesser-known heroes, but to expand their definition of what a hero can be. Artists, Denenberg says, like Louis Armstrong (who is included in an appendix and who Denenberg says “would be number 61 on my list”) have a tremendous impact on people’s lives.
“Too often people think of heroes only on the battlefield,” Denenberg says. “But Rosa Parks is a hero. What she did was heroic.”