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Twelve-year-old Hercules Beal hates his name. After all, he’s short and not intrepid like the physically imposing and heroic mythical Hercules. But it’s the name his parents gave him, and now he’s stuck with it. There’s one thing, though, that Hercules (the boy) has in common with Hercules (the myth)—in both cases, their parents have died.

Hercules lives with his older brother in Truro, Mass., and he’s convinced it’s the most beautiful place in the world. While Hercules attends the seventh grade at the Cape Cod Academy for Environmental Sciences, his brother operates the Beal Brothers Farm and Nursery, the business their parents owned and managed before they died.

At the beginning of the school year, Hercules’ homeroom teacher and language arts instructor, Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer—a tough, retired marine who brooks no complaints or excuses and tells his students he doesn’t care about their concerns—sends his students on a year-long mission, which he dubs a Classical Mythology Application Project. He explains, “The goal is to learn something about yourselves through studying the classical myths. They aren’t just bedtime stories ... and they aren’t just weird stories from the past. They are stories meant to convey something about the world and about your place in it.”

When Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer hands out his assignment to Hercules, the boy learns that he must perform the twelve labors of the mythical Hercules and write reports on what he has accomplished and learned about the relevance of these labors in regard to his own experiences.

Hercules isn’t sure where to begin. But his good friend (and heartthrob) Elly assures him that he shouldn’t worry about that because something will happen to make the path ahead clear. And Hercules learns that she’s right. Storms, the mysterious arrival of a dog, feral cats, wild animals, supposed enemies transformed into friends, budding romantic relationships, accidents, and more propel Hercules forward, and he learns that, like Hercules the myth, he has his own monsters and battles to overcome. But unlike the mythical Hercules who fought all his battles alone, Hercules begins to understand that “you can’t do everything by yourself. But once you figure out you don’t have to, you begin to look around and you see that even though you feel like you’ve been alone, you really haven’t been.”

In this warm-hearted novel, peppered with laugh-out-loud scenarios and tear-inducing situations, author Gary Schmidt masterfully employs a clever premise—having a modern-day character perform the twelve labors of Hercules within his life’s context—to convey for middle school readers the sorrow, confusion, and uncertainty encountered through tragic loss, as well as the surprising, transformative nature of love received from people and pets.

(Clarion Books)

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