As I bone up on what I hope to be “the competition” – a.k.a. Super Hero novels targeting the tween/young adult demographic – I thought I’d share my impressions of what I’ve read. I’ve actually been simul-reading several novels, but here are my thoughts on the first one I finished.
Sidekicked, by John David Anderson, Walden Pond Press, published June 2013
“Realistic” Fantasy—Super Hero
7 and up. Think Harry Potter for the Super Hero set. Funny with mild, cartoonish violence and a focus more on how a real-life middle schooler would deal with the trials and tribulations of being something more (or perhaps less) than normal. Romance plays its role, but in entirely the innocent sense of the word. A little sprinkling of crude (though not foul) language and potty humor, but one couldn’t imagine anything else from a red-blooded American 12-year-old boy. That said book reads a bit younger than the Harry Potter stories, so I am not sure it would have as much appeal to teen readers unless they are specifically Super Hero fans.
Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes. While Anderson strives to capture the sensibilities and voice of a middle schooler, he doesn’t avoid some wonderfully descriptive language and puts together a very solid plot. In many ways, he brings a sense of realism to the genre, moral conundrums and all, without falling victim to the “Dark Knight Disease” I mentioned in my previous post.
Widely available in hardback (it was just released this summer) and e-book in any number of forms.
Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Andrew Bean is an excellent middle school student, but as a Super Hero, he kind of sucks. His alter-ego, The Sensationalist, doesn’t have the incredible strength and speed of his friend Jenna, a.k.a. the Silver Fox, and he can’t turn his body into a lump of impenetrable rock like the new kid in class, who incidentally seems to be making a play for Jenna.
Instead, he’s stuck with the power to feel, see, smell and taste absolutely everything. So while his fellow sidekicks in training are leaping all over the secret sidekick training center in the basement of their school, he gets to sit at a desk and sniff into test tubes to hone his “skills.” And did I mention the rock guy with the chiseled abs is making a play for the one girl who actually seems to like him?
And if being the least super Super wasn’t bad enough, Drew managed to get paired with about the worst Hero you could imagine. The Titan, his personal idol and once the city of Justica’s greatest champion, now had more battles with barstools than bad guys. But Drew signed off on the sidekick’s code, and was determined to figure out how to prove his worth to worth to the world…and to Jenna. And when the most notorious band of baddies return, the very same gang that sent Titan into his unexplained tailspin, everything Drew thought he knew about his friends, his family, and even about being a hero itself, is called into question.
My Review (minor spoilers)
I’m a sucker for a good sidekick story. It’s one of the reasons one of my all-time favorite Super Hero incarnations is The Tick. In all its incarnations, while the big blue idiot may be the title character, the story is really about Arthur, the average guy trying to keep up in a super-powered world. It’s his story that grounds the ridiculous world of Supers that makes the whole thing work so well. Anderson seems to be of that same school, and comes up with a wonderful way to bring that same sensibility and sense of humor to the middle grade market.
Drew is our Arthur, seeming the worst of the best; possessed of powers that are seemingly not very super at all. Indeed, Drew’s abilities provide fertile ground for great description and very funny moments (who knew you could fart in a test tube?). Drew’s story is told first person, and I think Anderson does a very nice job capturing the voice of a brainy, nerdy, extremely self-conscious 12-year-old. If I were to nit-pick, I think some of the descriptive language he uses feels like it goes beyond his narrator, which I think is the issue from time-to-time in choosing first person with a child’s voice. That said, it never feels so overboard that I lost the feeling that I was hearing things from Drew himself.
For the first three quarters of the book, I thought Anderson did a brilliant job making all of the “super” problems Drew encountered into essentially the same problems just about any middle school kid has, only pumped up on steroids. The handsome other boy with an eye on the girl he is into isn’t just handsome, he’s handsome and he can turn himself into living rock. The feeling of anxiety about keeping secrets from parents, in this case super powers and being a sidekick to the greatest Super Hero in history (or, some semblance of him) is a powerful metaphor for that increased feeling of alienation that so many pre-teens start to feel as they change. Now throw in the fact that his Super Hero idol is a shell of his former self, and Drew gives readers a surprisingly deep-dive into the way kids begin to emerge from the cocoon of childhood into the oft harsh realities of life.
Anderson also does an excellent job playing with some of the core messages behind the Super Hero convention. What makes a bad guy bad? What are the ethics of being a hero? Is “Thou shalt not kill” an essential part of a hero’s code? How do the non-supers feel in a world filled with “freaks?” All those are covered in a way that in no way feels preachy, as the middle school prism helps make these questions feel fresh and resonant.
As taken as I was by the setup, I have to say that the finish was not quite what I had hoped for. It was still good, but it felt fairly conventional. I felt like I was going from reading something entirely original to a solid copy of many stories I had read before. The villain’s final reveal didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, but I was okay with that. The rationale for the villain’s behavior, however, felt a bit staid. But, as a discussion point, the blurred line between good and evil is an excellent one. Better yet because it is NOT told in the “shades of gray” way that so many Super Hero stories today are told. It is a real moral dilemma, not simply another ode to nihilism like we see in so many of today’s Super Hero stories.
In all, Sidekicked is a welcome addition to the genre and antidote to the growingly grim path Super Heroes have been taking.
Overall Read Score: 4 out of 5 stars.
Opportunities for Discussion
I’ve already noted a number of questions that the book takes in my review. On top of that, Anderson himself has done parents and teachers alike a favor with a nice little discussion guide you can find on his website (.pdf). As I noted, the book does a nice job of keeping the humor going through the book so that the very interesting and serious points being made about power never feel like an after school special.
Overall Family Discussion Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars.