Do you know what a hero is?

The dictionary says a hero is someone with great strength and ability, someone who shows great courage, or someone who is admired for his or her great achievements.

Heroes can be public people or private citizens. Each year, the Gallup Organization, a research company based in Princeton, N.J., conducts a poll about which people Americans admire most. The president and First Lady often top the list--as they did in last year's poll.

Most of the people on the list are famous. Others who appeared with President Clinton on the list of most admired men in 1998 were Pope John Paul II, South Africa's Nelson Mandela and basketball great Michael Jordan. Most-admired women included Oprah Winfrey, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Elizabeth Dole, writer Maya Angelou and England's Queen Elizabeth.

As this list shows, heroes can be many things. One thing they don't have to be is famous! The Gallup Organization reports that about 10 percent of people participating in the "most admired" poll name someone they know, such as a friend or relative, rather than a public figure.

You might even have heroes in your own family. Certainly your mom or dad can be a hero. So can your grandmother or your grandfather.

Jane Yolen, who has written and edited many books for children, this year published "Gray Heroes: Elder Tales From Around the World" (Penguin; $12.95). The book was designed for grown-ups, but Yolen says young readers or families reading together might enjoy it as well.

The stories in "Gray Heroes" teach a very important lesson: A hero is not necessarily someone young and strong.

When she was approaching her 60th birthday, Yolen became interested in reading stories about older people. She explored the library and bookstores, but she couldn't find what she was looking for. So she set to work looking for stories. "I wanted to find something that spoke directly to me at my age," she says.

The result: 75 tales from around the world that celebrate strong, powerful and adventurous older people. In tales from many different cultures, these gray heroes do things like save their grandchildren, and protect a castle and a kingdom. When danger comes, they show courage and cunning--often when the younger people around them are helpless or confused. In some of the tales she collected, says Yolen, "the old people really solve problems. They go out and kick dragon butt!"

"This doesn't happen just in stories," Yolen says. "Think of how old John Glenn was when he went back out into space!" (He was 77.) Yolen says that discovering so many stories about older people was encouraging. It made her realize that "cultures all over the world value what older people have to offer the community. These stories are about what elderly people can offer in terms of knowledge and memory and carrying the culture."

Who are your gray heroes? What have they taught you?

Jane Yolen encourages young people to get to know older folks. Ask them to tell you their stories. You will learn a lot about your culture and about what your family believes a hero can be.

TIPS FOR PARENTS

Summertime offers a perfect opportunity for reading, whether it's folk tales, fiction or fact. One of the best ways to encourage reading is to do it with your children. So plan an old-fashioned reading evening. Try one of these Jane Yolen books that deal with older people. Check the library or a bookstore for: "Tea With an Old Dragon" (Boyd's Mills Press; $15.95), the story of Sophia Smith, founder of Smith College; "Granddad Bill's Song" (Philomel, 1994), which deals sensitively with the death of a grandparent; or "Miz Berlin Walks" (Philomel, 1997), which tells the story of a young girl who forms a surprising bond with an older neighbor, forged through their common love of storytelling.

FOR YOU TO DO

Jane Yolen suggests this activity to find out more about "gray heroes": Search the newspaper and the Internet for stories about older people who have done interesting, exciting, admirable or adventurous things. She also suggests that you become a folklorist yourself. To do this, interview older people in your family or your community about their lives. People who have seemed ordinary to you may turn out to have heroic tales to tell! Tape your conversations or take detailed notes. When you get back to school this fall, you'll have some great material for your first writing assignment! "And you'll be sure to find gray heroes of your own," Jane Yolen says.