Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: THE LABORS OF HERCULES BEAL by Gary Schmidt
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee Member Julie Sigmund:
Award winning author Gary D. Schmidt has written another book that is sure to entertain readers with its challenges that turn into silly and outrageous tasks even as it handles tough topics of loss and change.
Hercules Beal hates his name and is working through many changes in his life. He is finally growing into his name…literally growing taller and hoping this means less teasing. I mean with a name like Hercules there are some expectations placed upon you. And so far, Hercules has lived up to none of them.
He is starting a new school – not by his choice. This means new kids who might actually become friends, but it also means having a former Marine as a teacher. This tough teacher assigns a classical application project. Hercules is given the task to recreate the 12 labors of Hercules that would bring the tasks into present time.
Task #1 – fighting a lion becomes, in the present time, conquering a bunch of stray cats in an abandoned building.
Taks #2 – killing a monster with nine heads that keeps regrowing becomes a quest for numerous plants for school. It doesn’t seem connected, I know. But the trip to get the plants helps Hercules talk about his parents’ accident. It also helps him to begin rebuilding a relationship with his brother, who is now his caretaker.
Task #3 – capture a golden deer..it took the real Hercules a year, so how in the world can he finish this task quickly? The golden deer turns into spray painted leaves. And 9 more tasks with equally entertaining ways to accomplish them.
The fun part of the book is that each task seems impossible. Hercules does things that appear to not be connected to the actual feats of Hercules the god. Then in some weird twist EVERY SINGLE TIME, there is a connection that actually makes sense.
Each feat also helps us understand more and more about Hercules. Once the task is completed, Hercules writes a reflection for his teacher. It is a strange but fantastic development of the character, and a different way to hear what is in Hercules’ mind about the tasks and his circumstances.
Somehow in addition to learning so much about Hercules’ development from mourning son to caring and responsible brother, we learn about the town. The residents all have interesting quirks that make them both annoying and lovable. The Marine teacher who seems like a character to be hated at the beginning of the book becomes the best mentor Hercules could have…especially at this time in his life.
THE LABORS OF HERCULES BEAL has just the right amount of adventure and humor to keep kids reading while including a depth that makes you think as he deals with major life events. It’s a book that adults and children will enjoy for different or maybe the same reasons and gives a lot to discuss. The perfect combination for a potential Newbery Award winner.
Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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