You can talk to me about pixels and graphics and color, but Disney/Pixar are not geniuses because of how their movies look. They are geniuses because of what their movies say. Time and again they create fully formed characters that defy expectations and become heroes. This method is particularly poignant in Up, the story of an curmudgeonly old man who has spent his life dreaming of adventure without experiencing it. In his twilight years he is finally able to break free (literally) and seek his dream. He is an unlikely hero, but that is what makes him likable and interesting to watch. Furthermore, the message that he represents – that anyone can be a hero – captivates and inspires us. Sounder by William H. Armstrong, winner of the 1970 Newbery Medal, and Ms. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, winner of the 1972 Newbery Medal, both focus on atypical heroes who triumph against adversity.
Sounder takes place in a rural South reminiscent of William Faulkner’s work. Sounder is a faithful coon dog who worships his master. When his master is arrested for stealing food to feed his family, Sounder chases after the police wagon, only to be shot for his trouble. His wound should be fatal, but Sounder is resilient and survives. His endurance gives his master’s son strength to carry on like him. The boy starts a journey to find his father, who has been taken to do hard labor for his “crime”, and he carries the memory of Sounder with him wherever he goes. In the process of looking for his father, he “accomplishes one wonderful thing” (82); he learns to read. Reading opens new worlds to him and comforts him during difficult times. Throughout his journeys, he realizes that “ain’t nobody else gonna walk it for you; you gotta walk it by yourself” (115). Sounder has inspired him to try by his heroic act of survival, but the boy was the one who had to take the steps himself.
Like Sounder, Mrs. Frisby struggles just to survive. She is a field mouse who would do anything for her children. When her son, Timothy, catches pneumonia and his life is in peril, she enlists the help of the owl, her natural enemy. He directs her to ask the rats for help, which leads to a series of events that put her life at risk. Mrs. Frisby is a unique heroine in children’s literature. She is not an ingénue or a warrior; she is a mother. Her priority is her children and she is willing to face her deepest fears to protect them. Her heroism lies in extraordinary acts she performs as an ordinary field mouse. Unlike the rats, she does not have enhanced intelligence or reflexes. Instead she has a parent’s love and dedication for her children, and that is what saves them.