Book Review: The Labors of Hercules Beal by Gary D. Schmidt
From award-winning author Gary D. Schmidt, a warm and witty novel in the tradition of The Wednesday Wars, in which a seventh grader has to figure out how to fulfill an assignment to perform the Twelve Labors of Hercules in real life—and makes discoveries about friendship, community, and himself along the way.
Herc Beal knows who he’s named after—a mythical hero—but he’s no superhero. He’s the smallest kid in his class. So when his homeroom teacher at his new middle school gives him the assignment of duplicating the mythical Hercules’s amazing feats in real life, he’s skeptical. After all, there are no Nemean Lions on Cape Cod—and not a single Hydra in sight.
Missing his parents terribly and wishing his older brother wasn’t working all the time, Herc figures out how to take his first steps along the road that the great Hercules himself once walked. Soon, new friends, human and animal, are helping him. And though his mythical role model performed his twelve labors by himself, Herc begins to see that he may not have to go it alone.
Strong contender here for my top read of 2023. A stunning read.
Make sure you read the summary up there. It tells you that a grieving kid named Hercules has to recreate the Twelve Labors of Hercules. What is doesn’t tell you is that every single word in this book is perfect. Every scene. Every feeling. Every everything.
I’m reading this book and crying and crying. “What’s wrong with me?” I think. And yes, it’s the amazing storytelling. The sheer beauty of a perfect book. But it’s also, of course, the grief. It’s what reading about Hercules picturing the car accident does to me, makes me picture my own dad’s death from a car accident. It’s how palpable the loss is, the blame is, the weight of it all is. Whether it’s a car accident, whether it’s a parent, whether it’s unexpected—whatever the cause, whatever the loss, it’s a place we all end up. Mired in grief. And I would love nothing more than to think that Hercules’s level of loss and sadness is just so extreme that it’s beyond what most kids can relate to, but we all know it’s a tough world (right, Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer?).
The labors of Hercules the Myth gave Hercules the Kid something to focus on, and while his labors were also about him getting through his grief (not beyond, never beyond), they brought so much more to his life. This completely bonkers-seeming project connected him to people around him in ways that were unexpected but so beautiful. The labors allowed Hercules to stop feeling like he’s just practicing being normal (when really he’s just being eaten up).
Hercules the Myth may have fought monsters, but those are nothing like the real things Hercules the Kid has to fight. And really, who cares about things like hunting down a golden deer or capturing a bull or even going to Hell and back, when there’s just a regular day to get through. And another. And another. Those are the real labors. Waking up. Remembering. Putting one foot in front of the other. And that other Hercules? The less impressive one? He had to do his labors alone. And maybe our Hercules, the real hero, the Kid one, started this story feeling like he was alone. But thanks to this assignment, Hercules the Kid learns it’s not his job to hold up the sky all alone. Others will help hold it, and they will be there to help him set it down. And you might have to go through Hell and back, but you won’t have to do it alone.
And that’s something, right?
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/23/2023
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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