In The Hero Next Door, the forthcoming We Need Diverse Books anthology, editor Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich gathers 13 original short stories by Indigenous authors and authors of color exploring myriad variations on the concept of heroism. Our reviewer calls it “a stellar collection that, in celebrating heroes, helps readers find the universal in the specific.” Rhuday-Perkovich answered our questions by email. (This Q&A has been edited for length; please check our website for the complete version.)
How did you arrive at the notion of heroism as your organizing theme?
[We Need Diverse Books CEO] Ellen Oh first approached me with the idea of “everyday heroes” as a theme for the next WNDB anthology and said that she was inspired by my novel 8th Grade Super Zero. I was surprised, because I always think of that as a story of “regular” kids just being themselves in New York City—and (duh) that was Ellen’s point. To move away from the concept of a “hero” as an individual who is “more than” and toward the idea that we can find extraordinary levels of courage and love in the ordinary things that we do and are and that can be, in a sense, heroic. That’s something that is deeply embedded in the way that I think about my work.
Do you remember when you yourself moved past superheroes and celebrities to a more expansive understanding of “hero”?
I always saw my family as heroic. Both of my parents were immigrants who worked incredibly hard to build beautiful lives—for themselves, for extended family and community—in this country that was often hostile, while always maintaining a connection to and deep pride in their homelands; they instilled that in us as well. I could go on and on, but one example is one of my grandfathers: From a very young age, I was in awe of this man who had been unable to go to school beyond third grade and went on to work as a tailor, a taxi driver, a professional baker, and more, often all at once, to support his family, and was one of the most well-read people I’ll ever know. He seemed like he could do anything. My family members, my ancestors, have always been luminous examples of the power of being exactly who you are and letting that guide you toward service and community.
You’ve assembled quite the dream team with your contributors. How did it feel to give direction to and edit these literary heroes?
I wish you could see me smiling right now. I mean, look at that lineup! It was an absolute joy to work with each and every one of these contributors. They all know, love, and have a deep respect for the middle-grade audience. I was thoroughly spoiled and humbled by this experience.
I’m not going to ask you which story is your favorite, but I am wondering if there are one or two in particular that surprised you? How?
Every time a story came in, I got a thrill—I had no idea what to expect, so I was surprised each time. We had a very broad prompt; no one was predictable or stale. I love that we have such a deep and wide variety of stories, of characters, of moods…and they are each examples of how the particular can also illuminate universal themes, emotions, and experiences. It was wonderful to work with [the WNDB short story] contest winner Suma Subramaniam. She was so committed to crafting a story that was honest about the pain that many experience but also a celebration of young people’s strength and resilience.
Vicky Smith is the children’s editor.