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Heroes for our kids

After the 2010 publication of Heroes for My Son, a collection of inspiring stories about real people, Brad Meltzer heard a drumbeat of complaint from one particular reader: his daughter, Lila, now 6.

"For two years now, she’s been marching into my office every day asking, 'Where the heck is MY book?'" said Meltzer, who lives in South Florida with his wife and three children. "You think I’m joking, but I’m not."

Now (at last) it arrives: Heroes for My Daughter (Harper, $19.99). Meltzer is known for his political thrillers and his History Channel show, Decoded.

The idea for the books came to Meltzer, 42, on his way home from the hospital after the birth of his first son a decade ago. In his reverie, he remembered a story his own father, Stewie Meltzer, had told him many times: "On the night I was born, my dad told me he went to a liquor store and bought a bottle of champagne that he put aside to drink on the day I got married," Meltzer said. "I decided that night I would write a book for my son, something about the rules he should live by. I was going to be the greatest father in the world."

But six years later, the rules-to-live-by book was still not coming together when a friend told him an anecdote about the astronaut Sally Ride.

"She was a genius of physics, she was fearless, she was a great athlete, but how did she become the first female astronaut in space? Why her? She answered an ad in her college newspaper looking for astronauts," Meltzer recalled. "My daughter had been born at that point, and I had vowed I would write a book for her, too. Here was the message I wanted her to hear: Seize the moment. I didn’t need a book of rules. I wanted a book of heroes."

The challenge came then in defining the term. "I tell my kids every day, 'Just because you’re famous doesn’t mean you’re a hero. Being a professional athlete? That means nothing. Being a bestselling author? That means nothing. I don’t care where you went to school, or how much money you make. It’s ordinary people who change the world."

Meltzer's heroes are an eclectic lot. There are the usual suspects (so to speak) – Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller. But he also included – brace yourself - the Three Stooges ("They were the first to parody Adolf Hitler on film - that’s bravery!") and Lisa Simpson. "She’s a great role model for a girl. She’s unapologetic for being smart and she fights for what she believes in," Meltzer said.

Some of the most moving stories in the book are about young women most readers have probably never heard of – though many have seen the YouTube film of Mallory Holtzman and Liz Wallace, two Central Washington University softball players, who lost the game when they chose to carry an injured opponent around the bases after she tore her ACL trying to leg out a home run.

Brad Meltzer and Sheila Spicer.And then there’s Sheila Spicer, who retired from Miami-Dade County Public Schools in 2010. As an English teacher at Highland Oaks Junior High in North Miami, she recognized Meltzer’s writing talent long before he did. When she couldn’t rearrange his schedule to get him into the Honors English class where she thought he belonged, she tailored an individual program for him to follow while she taught the rest of the class something else.

Years later, Meltzer showed up at her classroom with a copy of his first published novel as a gift. "I wrote this book for you," he told her. "Within seconds, she was crying."

At the back of the book are blank pages designed for readers to write in their own personal heroes. "Those are the most beautiful pages in the whole book," Meltzer said. "There’s no hero like the one that you live with every day."