New Your State School Boards Association

In book, Rochester board member seeks to redefine the term 'hero'

by George Basler

On Board Online • September 4, 2017

By George Basler
Special Correspondent

As a child growing up, Van White and his brother would spend countless hours drawing their own comic books featuring heroic characters created from their own imaginations - Afroman and The Fly.

Now White is president of the Rochester Board of Education, but he hasn't lost his passion for writing about heroism. He has self-published a book for young readers called HEROES. His subjects don't wear capes or masks. Instead they're what White calls "everyday heroes" - teachers, firefighters and caregivers -who can have a big impact on others.

"I hope people can see that heroes are all around us, not in the movies and on television, but in our homes and our neighborhoods," he said.

The idea for the book grew out of White's dissatisfaction with books he had been asked to read to pupils in elementary schools. While filled with great illustrations, those books weren't very diverse and lacked a social message, he said.

So White, 55, decided to write his own. The writing process took more than a year, mainly on weekends, as White balanced his literary aspirations with his work as a civil rights lawyer and duties as a board of education member. One of his models was Theodor Seuss Geisel, who wrote the Dr. Seuss books.

"When I was a kid, Dr. Seuss books were big," White said. "They had whimsical pictures, but usually a powerful message as well."

Like Seuss, White favors simple end rhymes. Beneath drawings of a cigar-smoking man in a suit with his feet propped up on his desk and a teacher at her desk are these sentences:

Big shots, for example, can't be heroes if they make other people feel small.

To be a real hero, everyone has to be important. That's it. No exceptions at all.

White obtained the 43 illustrations by hiring freelance artists whom he found through the online service Fiverr. The illustrators worked off original sketches done by White, who made sure to feature children and adults from all races and backgrounds. Many of the drawings are humorous, like a portrait of a hot dog-eating champion.

"I think the book is sufficiently silly," White said. But the silliness is mixed in with a serious message designed to reach a target audience of youngsters from four to eight years old.

Celebrities don't make terribly good heroes for today's kids, White said. Social media provides insights into celebrities' lives, warts and all. That has made some people jaded about the whole idea of heroes. But, he emphasized, "It's important for people to have heroes, because people need hope."

White defines a hero as someone who makes a difference in a person's life over the long-term, or who makes a difference at any given moment. His book covers teachers, firefighters, police officers, parents and caregivers, among others.

The book's last section, "My Hero Journal," asks children to write five things that make them a hero. Having learned that heroes are simply people who help others, children should be able to come up with something.

White said his message for youngsters is: "There are heroes all around you, and you can be a hero too."

HEROES' initial printing of 250 copies is now almost completely sold out. White is promoting the book through personal appearances and readings, such as ones scheduled for Atlanta, Florida, Washington, D.C. and Trinidad.

"I believe people have a universal desire for heroes," he said.

The book can be purchased in soft cover or hard cover on White's website, www.listofheroes.com .


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