In January 2011, Daniel Hernandez was a 20-year-old college student interning for U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords when a gunman opened fire during a constituent event at a Tucson shopping center, striking the congresswoman and 18 others. After Hernandez’s quick thinking and medical know-how helped the gravely wounded Gifford hold on until paramedics arrived on the scene, he was thrust into the media spotlight and heralded as a hero. He tells his story in They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth, written with Susan Goldman Rubin, which Simon & Schuster will publish on February 5. In the book, due out in simultaneous English and Spanish editions, Hernandez decries the designation of hero, yet his devotion to public service and education advocacy at such a young age is remarkable.
Hernandez says that he initially resisted the notion of writing a book about his experience on that fateful day. “I had been approached by a few publishers a month or so after the incident,” he says. “But the message they wanted me to convey – what it felt like to be a celebrity – was not something I was comfortable with. I don’t consider myself a hero. On that day, I did what I thought anyone should have done. Heroes are people who spend a lifetime committed to helping others. And I don’t like talking about myself, which may sound odd since I’ve done about 1,400 interviews since the incident. But I don’t like being in the spotlight. I prefer being in the background.”
As time passed, Hernandez – who is now 22, a graduate of the University of Arizona, and a member of the governing board of the Tucson school district where he attended public school – realized that he would be interested in writing a book focusing on his public service. “I am involved in Latino and LGBT issues, and there aren’t a lot of Latinos and LGBTs featured in novels or books,” he says. “It was the fact that these groups don’t have many role models that drove me to even consider writing about myself. As a Latino person and now as a young elected official, I’ve faced some big challenges, and I want young people and adults to know that they need to overcome challenges and become involved their communities.”
In spring 2011, after Hernandez approached George Nicholson at Sterling Lord about becoming his literary agent, Nicholson mentioned the book project to one of his authors, Susan Goldman Rubin, over brunch. “I remembered the Tucson shooting incident, and when George asked me if I’d be interested in helping to tell Daniel’s story, the idea immediately captured my interest,” Rubin says. “I wanted to know more about this person, about what gave him the impetus to step forward during the tragedy when many of us wouldn’t. I thought this was an important story for young people to hear.”
A Journey Begins
Rubin’s next step was to travel from her Malibu home to Tucson to meet Hernandez. “I spent a couple of days with Daniel, and we liked each other and felt we could work together,” she says. Soon thereafter, Rubin had a fortuitous conversation with a friend – author, librarian, and critic Michael Cart – during which she mentioned Hernandez’s book. “Michael immediately said, ‘This project has got to be sent to David Gale at Simon & Schuster,’ ” Rubin recalls. “He said David was the right editor for this.”
Cart was right. When he received the submission from Nicholson, Gale, v-p and editorial director of S&S Books for Young Readers, was immediately drawn to the book. “Certainly the hook is this young man knowing what to do in such a tense situation and saving Giffords’s life,” he says. “But then there is the fact that he has accomplished so much at such a young age. What attracted me was the idea of this as an inspirational book for kids – encouraging them to decide what they want to do and go after it. And Daniel is an incredible role model to the Hispanic and gay communities. I think he has a real future in politics.”
Recreating Hernandez’s voice in They Call Me a Hero wasn’t difficult, says Rubin. On a second visit to Tucson, she recorded hours of interviews with him, and many phone conversations and e-mails followed. “He was very articulate and clear from the beginning,” she says. “And I transcribed all the recordings myself, by hand. The more I listened to and wrote down his words, the easier it was for me to capture the rhythm of his speech.”
Hernandez has high praise for Rubin’s work on the memoir. “She was able to take so much information and make it flow so well,” he says. “This has been an interesting journey. I enjoyed the process, but it takes a lot out of someone like me, who is so private, to have everything and anything out in the open. Susan did a wonderful job of making it work.”
S&S’s marketing plans for They Call Me a Hero include promotion via social media and other online venues, school and library promotion, and author publicity at book festivals, conferences, and bookstores.
Though Gale says he hopes to see another book from Hernandez, the author is somewhat wary of the topic of tackling a second one. “We worked hard on this book, and right now I want to make sure that it is a success,” he says. “And my priority is to continue to serve my community as a school board member and advocate. But I’m taking nothing off the table in terms of doing another book. I’m not going to say no.”
They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth by Daniel Hernandez with Susan Goldman Rubin. S&S, $17.99 Feb. ISBN 978-1-4424-6228-1