review of superhero picture book Dex: The Heart of a Hero

Longttime readers will know that I love books about superheroes–when they’re well written. So this book is a real treat to me.

Dex: The Heart of a Hero

by Caralyn Buehner, illustrated by Mark Buehner

HarperTrophy/HarperCollins (paperback) (May 2007)

ISBN-10: 0064438457, ISBN-13: 978-0064438452

Ages: 4-8 and up

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Dex was a little dog. His legs were little, his tail was little, his body was little. He looked like a plump sausage sitting on four little meatballs.
Being the size that he was, Dex was often overlooked. The other dogs grew tired of waiting for Dex to catch up when they played chase, and after a while they forgot to invite him at all. No one really seemed to notice him, except when Cleevis, the tomcat, demonstrated how he could stand right over Dex and not even ruffle his fur.
Yes, everything about Dex was little–except for his dreams. He wanted to be a HERO. He could just see it.

Dex: The Heart of a Hero, by Caralyn Buehner, illustrated by Mark Buehner, p. 2-3.

Dexter is a short, plump dog who is ignored or bullied by the other dogs (and one cat) in his neighborhood. Dexter dreams of being a hero–and then one day he decides that he’s going to make it happen. He studies superhero comics and movies, and then works hard getting himself into shape. Once his suit arrives, he goes out and starts helping others, saving a mouse from a sewer, tackling a purse snatcher, and more. But the bullies still snicker at Dexter–until Dexter has to save one of them. Dex: The Heart of a Hero is a fun, entertaining, inspiring book about a dog who achieves his dreams of becoming a hero–perfect for superhero fans, people who like characters to succeed, and anyone who likes a good story.

Caralyn Buehner (Snowmen at Night; Escape of Marvin the Ape) knows her superheroes. Dex has all the makings of a classic superhero–at firsts he’s an outsider, bullied, ignored. But he’s brave, smart, and tenacious. He trains himself, works out, studies, and doesn’t let go of his dream. Through his own choices and actions, Dex changes his circumstances and becomes a hero. Buehner adds the perfect touch to the story, with little boxes beneath the main story text and the illustrations, summing up Dexter’s actions in a superhero comic book way: “The mighty Dex pressed on, through wind and rain and storm and fatigue….”

Buehner immediately gains reader empathy by telling us how Dexter is overlooked and ignored–an outsider–because of his size. And then we’re told Dexter’s dream, and we start rooting for him to achieve it, especially when we see how hard he works for it. Many readers, especially young readers who don’t have much control over their lives, will identify with Dexter’s strong dream to become a hero in his own life, instead of being bullied or ignored.

Buehner spends time showing us how hard Dexter works at his dream, reminding us that often success comes from hard work. Dexter doesn’t gain acceptance at first from the bullies, which increases the tension and makes the ending all the sweeter and more fulfilling for the reader. Buehner smartly adds other good feeling into the book–the animals that Dexter help appreciate him, and Dexter feels good in his suit and with what he’s accomplishing. This helps bring a lot of good feeling to the story.

Dex is especially likable because he started out being bullied and found a way to come through that, to help others, and even to help the one who bullied him. Dexter reminds readers that you can achieve your dream and make a difference, if you want it bad enough and try long and hard enough. He also models positive behaviors, such as a willingness to help others; having compassion for others; believing in yourself; and striving for your dreams.

Buehner adds specific details that make the story come alive and feel believable, such as Dexter being teased (the cat repeatedly shows how short Dexter is by standing over Dexter without ruffling his fur); how Dexter builds his muscles (climbing up and down garbage bags, even when he’s tired, and filling a sock with sand and carrying it with him as he runs); and how Dexter’s suit comes–in a small brown package. The details add a richness to the story.

Mark Buehner’s (Snowmen at Night; Escape of Marvin the Ape) illustrations use deep, bold colors and a fun cartoon style, perfect for a superhero picture book. They build beautifully on the text. The illustrations vary per page, some going full bleed, some slightly smaller and enclosed in borders, and others with multiple illustrations on one page showing a sequence of events that make up a scene. This variation keeps the story visually interesting.

Buehner works well with shadow and light, giving the characters an almost 3-D quality, and creating a great sense of depth. There were a few illustrations, though, that were a little too dark, making it hard to see everything that was going on because the scene took place at night. Still, the most important action is visible–Dexter’s.

Buehner’s added all sorts of meaningful visual touches for the super hero fan–such as Dexter reading a super hero comic in the front matter, and in the library; Dexter looking at a super hero movie poster; Dexter flexing his non-existent muscles in front of the mirror, and later his full muscles; and Dexter’s spandex uniform with an emblem on the front, a yellow belt, and a cape.

Buehner adds another layer of fun into his illustrations, by hiding cats, rabbits, and Tyrannosaurus rexes throughout the illustrations, as well as a few other images such as a witch on a broom, allowing readers to hunt for them.

This is a real feel-good book, full of fun and heart, with positive messages woven nicely into the story. If you know a superhero fan, get them this book; they’ll thank you for it. Highly recommended.

About Cheryl Rainfield

I write the books I needed and couldn't find as a teen. I write teen fiction--paranormal fantasy and gritty realistic fiction. I'm the author of SCARS (WestSide Books, 2010) #1 ALA QuickPicks, and Governor General Literary Award Finalist, HUNTED (WestSide Books, Oct 2011), STAINED (Harcourt, 2013), The Last Dragon (HIP Books, Sept 2009), and Walking Both Sides (HIP Books, 2011). I also enjoy drawing, surfing the web, connecting with people I like, doing crafts, and being with my dog.
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