The driving notion that led to the creation of Captain Perseverance—How I Became a Superhero is that it might be possible to use the superhero genre to instill the idea in children that perseverance can be their very own, real-life superpower. And that genre is and always has begin quintessentially visual.
The idea begins with a Ted Talk presented by renowned psychologist Dr. Angela Duckworth in which she summarize the results of her research on the subject of Grit, which she defined as perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals. Her research, she said, had concluded that grit, even more than IQ, is the single strongest indicator of future success. But it was her next statement that hit me right between the eyes.
“To me,” she said, “the most shocking thing about Grit is how little we know… about building it. Every day parents and teachers ask me, ‘How do I build GRIT in kids?’ … The honest answer is … I don’t know.”
I heard those words, and suddenly the third grader that lives in my head started jumping out of his desk, raising his hand, shouting, “I know! I know!”
I have spent most of my life learning to write the kinds of poems that do exactly that sort of thing—funny poems, written in the voice of children, about their real and very serious feelings, designed for dramatic performance. It’s what psychologists call play therapy because it helps children deal with emotional issues, but it can also help children develop specific personality characteristics—like grit. So what to write? I sat at my laptop, place my fingers on the keyboard, and it was off to the races.
My third-grader muse began giving instructions rapid fire: grit is perseverance, perseverance is a superpower, superheroes have superpowers, I need to write a story about an ordinary kid who discovers his perseverance-superpower and turns into a superhero. What I need is a story about Captain Perseverance.
Children love to imagine they themselves have superhero powers. So Captain Perseverance gives them a superhero whose superpower is perseverance, and this superhero passes through a series of challenges that are precisely the same challenges children face in school—learning to read, long division, science projects, school band. In each instance the Captain struggles—perseveres—succeeds. Simultaneously, in their imaginations, children struggle—persevere—succeed as well, and are now psychologically predisposed to act accordingly when they face challenges in real life.
Then, to make sure the insight has really sunken in, the Captain explains why all this is happening:
So why is all this happening?
I think it’s pretty clear.
You’re looking at a person
who has leaned to PERSEVERE.
I struggle…and I practice…
then I struggle more and more.
Sometimes it an be fun…
but sometimes it’s a chore.
But I’ve learned that perseverance
is a special kind of friend.
I’m spinning in the middle,
but I’m winning in the end.
I am CAPTAIN PERSEVERANE!
Perseverance through and through.
I became a superhero, and I promise…
SO CAN YOU!
But for all of this to work I knew that Captain Perseverance would have to achieve authentic, superhero credibility so that children would accept him as a real superhero. As I considered how to make that happen, I realized instantly that illustration would be essential. The superhero genre first appeared in illustrated comic books and eventually evolved into full-length feature films, both quintessentially visual genres. The superhero costume, their particular style of over-the-top bodily movements—all visual.
Enter the incredibly talented artist, Cam Aitkenhead. Cam’s illustrations create an amazingly high-energy environment that makes the reader feel as though Captain Perseverance might jump right off the page. Then, in the character’s design, he brilliantly manages to create a Captain Perseverance who actually looks like both a real superhero and a real kid. This makes it easier for children to identify with the character and to accept the idea that you too can be a superhero.
Once children have experienced the exploits of Captain Perseverance the notion of perseverance is no longer something parents merely tell them to do. Children will have had an imagined experienced of perseverance as a real power and will have felt the power inside themselves. They will have learned to embrace struggle and to anticipate eventual success as a result of not giving up. The phrase itself will have entered the parent-child vocabulary, so that when children face challenges parents can smile and say, “Captain Perseverance!” One phrase, upbeat and positive, with which parents can help children succeed. One phrase free from the possibility of unintended judgment or criticism. One phrase that says it all. It’s a wonderful thing to watch.
Brod Bagert is the award-winning author of 18 books on poetry for children, youth, and adults. His awards include the International Reading Association’s prestigious Young Adults Choices Award, the Association of Educational Publishers Distinguished Achievement Award, the Independent Publisher Gold Book Award and Mom’s Choices Gold Medal. Prior to becoming a poet, Bagert practiced law, served in public office and managed his own practice for twenty-one years before shutting it down and becoming one of America’s few full-time, professional poets. Brod currently lives in New Orleans with Debby, his wife of over 46 years, where they spend quality time with their four children and a growing tribe of grandchildren.
Continue following the blog tour tomorrow at A Geek Daddy!