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Braver than I Thought

Real People. Real Courage. Real Hope.


About The Book

Meet people who have had a profound impact on our world while bearing the physical and emotional scars born out of struggles and suffering, transforming their stories from pain to power in this inspirational middle grade nonfiction book about overcoming challenges.

Magazine spreads and Hollywood hits showcase stars with perfect skin, perfect faces, perfect hair, perfect lives, perfect everything. But what if this absence of scars—the hidden and physical—is really a lie? And what if, underneath all that perfection, something far more powerful and authentic is waiting to be seen, shown, and heard?

In Braver Than I Thought, kids discover the true stories of remarkable people whose scars have been a part of their journey, who have helped them become the world-shakers and game-changers that they are! The engaging and high-interest stories include Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman, war veteran and now-senator Tammy Duckworth, and beyond-belief rock climber extraordinaire Aron Ralston, who all endured intense trauma that led to pronounced scars, but also helped them forge purposeful identities as they came to peace with their bodies.

Readers will find that whatever the physical, mental, or emotional challenges that we face, it is not the end of a story, but rather the beginning of a new one.


Chapter 1: Aron Ralston: Trapped under the Weight of the World

On the morning of April 26, 2003, Aron Ralston woke up excited. The clear blue of the Utah sky beckoned him onward for an adventure that he relished: hiking, biking, and rock climbing. Today’s challenge would be thirty miles, fifteen of them on a bike and the other fifteen on a hike, including climbs. Aron believed in pushing himself to the limit, seeking thrills in the great outdoors and making a name for himself by defying expectations to reach summits and climb treacherous rock faces.1




Great daring.

Aron thrived on these aims. But April 26 would be the start of a five-day challenge (not the single day he’d planned for) that was more treacherous than anything he had ever faced before or anything he likely ever would again. It pushed him to find a new kind of motivation and a new kind of hope.2

The day began like many for Aron. He felt good as he packed, carrying only what he deemed essential, nothing more. Heavy extra baggage, he reasoned, would only slow him down on his quest. After all, he was used to big challenges and making do with less. Some of what Aron brought included his climbing gear, two burritos, about a gallon of water, five chocolate bars, a chocolate muffin, and, he wrote later, “my rarely used Leatherman-knockoff multi-tool (with two pocketknife blades and a pair of pliers) that I carry in case I need to cut the webbing to build anchors. Also in my backpack are my headlamp, headphones, CD player, and several Phish CDs.”3

Aron didn’t have much water or food with him, considering the challenge ahead, but he was not worried. He had repeatedly tried daunting adventures and come out fine. This challenge would be no different, right?

His adventure that day would bring him through what is called the Robbers Roost, which is part of the canyonlands in southeastern Utah.4 Desolate, hot, and markedly tricky, the terrain sees few visitors yearly. It is many miles to any kind of populated area or aid, and even avid hikers usually seek far more agreeable trails far away from these dangerous rock outcroppings.

As he began, the wind blew gusts that were stronger than Aron had expected, but he still felt good and still hoped he’d finish his day’s mission in time to make it to a campsite party at the end of his route. He hiked along, stopping occasionally for a bite of his chocolate muffin or a sip of water—though he did so sparingly, to ensure he could stretch the water supply out as long as he needed it.

And then, suddenly, he was no longer walking along a path atop the canyon.

He was in it.

He had fallen down an extremely narrow chute and was wedged inside. To make matters worse, an eight-hundred-pound boulder had come crashing down after him and landed on his right hand, crushing it firmly against the rock wall.

At first, Aron tried desperately to push the boulder off his hand. But it would not budge. No matter how much force he applied, it was immovable.

The surreal moment seemed impossible—how could he be here, stuck in a canyon, when only moments before he was enjoying the day’s adventures and dreaming of the festivities of the evening?

He had to find a way out.

When moving the boulder proved impossible, Aron got out his cheap pocketknife tool, which his mother had purchased for him, and he began to try to cut away at the rock. Maybe, he reasoned, he’d be able to eventually cut through enough of the rock to free his hand and try to find some way out of there.

He made some very, very slight progress and calculated that, at that rate, he would not finish cutting through the rock for about a month, by which time he would be dead from dehydration, hypothermia, or starvation.

So, cutting through the rock was a lost cause.

Hours passed.

Days passed.

By the third day, Aron had come to accept that he would die while trapped underneath that boulder. He tried his best to prepare himself to let go and even recorded messages for his family, but after doing this, his survival instinct clicked on with one last possibility to keep himself alive. This idea would be horrific, and perhaps impossible, but he was at the end of his options, and this last chance was all he had.

Using the same cheap knife that he had originally used to try to cut a section from the boulder, Aron decided that he would amputate his own hand in order to free his arm and try to make it back to civilization for help.5

However, Aron soon found that this would be impossible. The bones in his arm rendered even this extreme idea implausible. Hours and days passed, until the fifth day, when Aron realized his arm has deteriorated enough to allow him to snap the bones. Enduring excruciating pain, Aron began to slowly amputate his own hand. He was physically weak due to running out of food and water, and the knife was dull and the task formidable beyond belief. It took Aron an hour of cutting to do what he’d set out to do, and as he did so, his body lost a lot of blood. Despite the pain, he painstakingly worked toward his goal of getting free from the boulder, though his hope was dwindling that he’d ever reach help. But a little hope was better, in his mind and heart, than none.

Eventually, he was able to use the dull tool to separate his hand from his own arm. It was the dawn of the sixth day when Aron could finally move again. He could stand. He could walk. He could try to find a way out.6

But he was many miles away from any kind of camp or safe space, and he was already very weak from lack of sustenance and the terrifying loss of blood. Aron still held on to hope.


One step at a time, he walked toward hope.

One step at a time, Aron walked with the belief that survival was possible—however slim.

One step at a time, he walked toward the possibility that maybe he would escape this seemingly impossible situation.

Reflecting on that moment, and particularly on the need to get himself to help, Aron said, “Each step I took was a step toward freedom, a step toward home, toward possibility.”7

After he’d hiked six and a half miles with dwindling energy and severe blood loss, a small miracle happened: Aron crossed paths with a mother and her son out for their own (much gentler) hike. They could not believe that Aron was still standing, let alone walking, and they immediately rushed to find help. Soon, a rescue chopper was on its way, loaded Aron on board, and began its fast flight toward medical services.

However, there was just one more problem: the chopper was almost out of gas.

What had started as an adventure purely for fun and testing Aron’s own physical limits had devolved into a fight for survival on all fronts. With literally drops of gas remaining, the helicopter sputtered to the landing pad at Moab Regional Hospital, and Aron was rushed inside.8

He lived.

He lived!

Having expanded the sheer limits of what the human body can take, Aron now talks openly about the gratefulness he has learned to have for life, and also the respect he gained for nature and his own limits. He said, “It was a blessing in a way. It made me think about the way I was living.”9

In sharing his story, Aron has found greater peace with the scars his body now bears and has found connections with many others who bear their own scars from trauma. Aron still loves exploring in the great outdoors, but he does so now less from a goal of competitive thrill and more from a place of comfort in his own soul. Aron has reflected that, before the accident, what often pushed him to heroic feats was the drive to break past all limits, to accomplish the unthinkable, and to strive to perform ever greater.


The bravery and hope we find within ourselves can help us to overcome something incredibly hard, and yet we will always find new challenges awaiting us that we never expected. We don’t ever arrive at a place where we no longer need bravery or hope. No matter what we go through, we constantly need to reach for these two supports to face new challenges.

The irony is that such external aims eventually created a path for Aron to accept himself as he is, to learn to find his meaning not in what he accomplishes but in who he is, and to connect with others in a more meaningful and intentional way.


Aron has said that, even years later, both his physical and his emotional scars continue to teach him. They remind him of what he has come through. They show him the great strength he possesses and the great peace he has come to feel.


irony (noun): A situation that is strange because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected.

Now, when he speaks to others about his accident and the resulting scars, he emphasizes that all of us know immense boulders—boulders that threaten to keep us pinned, to crush our hands, our hearts, or our souls—and he helps people find a way forward to remove those barriers.

Sometimes, this journey is one plodding and painful step at a time.

Sometimes, like for Aron Ralson, the great courage lies in taking one small step toward hope, and then another, and then another. And we never know who or what might be on the path just up ahead.
Cheryl Strayed found a new kind of peace with herself and her traumatic past when she challenged herself with a 1,100-mile hiking expedition along the Pacific Crest Trail on the Western Coast of the United States at the age of twenty-six. Cheryl went on the journey to help her recover from the death of her mother as well as the past trauma of being sexually abused by her paternal grandfather when she was very young, an ordeal that she had never fully faced and processed. Along the trail through the wilderness, Cheryl learned to see herself in a healthier, more empowering light, and she later documented this journey in her bestselling book Wild, which went on to become a major film starring Reese Witherspoon.

  1. 1. Michael Novinson, “Aron Ralston: The Three Gifts Adversity Gives Us,” CRN, August 11, 2019,
  2. 2. Michael Brick, “Climber Still Seeks Larger Meaning in His Epic Escape,” New York Times, March 31, 2009,
  3. 3. Aron Ralston, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (New York: Atria Books, 2004), 2.
  4. 4. Brick, “Climber Still Seeks.”
  5. 5. Ralston, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 168.
  6. 6. Ralston, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 177.
  7. 7. Novinson, “Aron Ralston: The Three Gifts.”
  8. 8. Novinson, “Aron Ralston: The Three Gifts.”
  9. 9. Brick, “Climber Still Seeks.”

About The Author

Photograph by David Le

Luke Reynolds taught in public schools for many years before becoming an assistant professor of education at Endicott College. He is the author of the Fantastic Failures books, Surviving Middle SchoolThe Looney ExperimentBraver Than I Thought, and the picture books If My Love Were a Fire Truck and Bedtime Blastoff!. He and his wife, Jennifer, have four sons, and they live in Massachusetts, where they endeavor to be outside and exploring as much as possible.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Aladdin/Beyond Words (September 13, 2022)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781582708461
  • Grades: 3 - 7
  • Ages: 8 - 12
  • Lexile ® 1130L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®
  • Fountas & Pinnell™ Z+ These books have been officially leveled by using the F&P Text Level Gradient™ Leveling System

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Raves and Reviews

A look at people—and animals—who parlayed obstacles into growth.

Incorporating candid anecdotes of his own traumas, Reynolds explains that everyone has physical or emotional scars, but these painful experiences can be catalysts of positive change for oneself and others. Importantly, he acknowledges myriad sources of emotional trauma, including mental illness, racism, and both experiencing and witnessing abuse. Profiles of 60 diverse contemporary and historical figures from around the world illustrate his point. Subjects include enslaved American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who sustained a head injury that left her with chronic pain and seizures; nonbinary singer Demi Lovato, who struggled with drug addiction; Ugandan activist Hanifa Nakiryowa, whose face was disfigured in an acid attack; and Winter, a dolphin whose prosthetic tail inspired humans with disabilities. The author encourages readers to reframe their own scars as sources of strength, emphasizing the importance of self-care and seeking support during this difficult process. He avoids comparing struggles or triumphs, reassuring readers that their experiences matter and that no step toward healing is too small. Sidebars define terms and further discuss such concepts as recognizing injustice and supporting others. Though the focus is uneven (30 subjects receive individual chapters, while single-paragraph snapshots introduce the remaining 30), the wealth of experiences represented and the author’s conversational, compassionate tone will reassure readers coping with their own challenges that they are not alone.

A refreshingly down-to-earth exploration of trauma and healing. (resources, films and books, discussion questions) (Nonfiction. 9-14)

– Kirkus Reviews, 07/15/2022

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