Reviews: Sidekicked By John David Anderson
Author: John David Anderson
Publisher: Walden Pond Press
Expected Publication Date: June 2013 ISBN13: 9780062133144
Recommended for grades 4 and up.
Note: An advanced reader copy was provided by the publisher.
A story of Good . . . Evil . . .and middle school.
I grew up on stories of superheroes. I think a lot of kids did, and still do. The comics, the animated cartoons that brought them to life, the movies and fans. I’m a huge fan of this world of extraordinary powers, fast-paced action and drama and serial storylines. I still love reading about superheroes. Most of these super-powered denizens of contemporary science fiction and fantasy inhabit the world of graphic novels, comic books, and spin off media books. There is, however, another subset of super hero fiction stories out there. Rather than basing their narratives on familiar comic book heroes and villains and the worlds from their franchises, these writers create their own unique heroes and back stories in order to explore the tropes, themes and issues of superheroes through narrative form. I’ve read a good deal of this fiction, and while there are some gems in the bunch, a good portion of it falls flat. Either it tries too hard to be literary and loses sight of the nature and immediacy of the superhero story, or the fiction fails to translate the graphic novel action and event into a full fledged, fleshed out novel. It’s rare to find a story that manages the trick of capturing the tone, action and vision of these heroes while providing a deeper context and exploration of these heroes at the same time.
So you can perhaps imagine my ambivalence picking up Sidekicked. I’m always interested by middle grade super hero fiction, as there is only a scant handful of it outside the realm of graphic novels. But I feared it would disappoint this super hero fan. Despite my concerns, I began reading. When I put the book down, I knew that it was one of the best darn super hero novels I’ve read. Hands down. John David Anderson decants the essence of superhero myth and legend . . . and melds it with the realities of middle school life from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old protagonist. He sets his story in a world that believes in Supers . . . but also has math tests, school lunches, and awkward relationships. What is key in my mind, however is that he does this without making the entire thing a comedy. It’s fairly easy to make heroes so outrageous and larger than life that the whole thing becomes a tongue in cheek, over the top satire. But to have those wildly powerful Supers and create a dramatic and serious story about them that brings them down to earth just a bit while still allowing them to be Supers? That’s a heck of an accomplishment.
It’s Tuesday. Andrew Bean is suspended over a swimming pool full of acid. For a normal kid this might be a bit unusual, but for Andrew (aka The Sensationalist) it’s just a one of the hazards of being a sidekick in training. When he’s not attending middle school, doing homework and studying for tests, he’s the Sensationalist, the kid with super senses who is training to fight crime. Of course, having extremely sharp senses of hearing, smell, sight, touch and taste isn’t quite the same as being able to benchpress a car like his best friend Jenna. Or fly. Or phase through solid objects. Still, Andrew embraces being a part of H.E.R.O. –the secret organization that trains sidekicks and pairs them with full fledged Supers as mentors. He only wishes his Super would show up. Being targeted by dangerous villains, having his Super MIA and trying to determine what really are the boundaries of good and evil is a lot for one extremely sensitive kid. But when an old nemesis returns to Justicia for revenge and Supers start go missing, things can a Super-less sidekick figure out what’s going on . . . and maybe save the day?
Andrew, our protagonist and first person narrator by turns thoughtful and funny, sweet and inspiring and incredibly likable. Despite his extraordinary adventures and secrets, Drew feels like an ordinary kid, navigating a lot of very realistic middle school issues. It’s just that in the middle of them is this whole super-hero thing added to the mix, and our protagonists’ approach to his side-kick status is very much in keeping with who he is. Unlike his startling friend, Jenna who transforms herself from a slightly nerdy girl in school into the dangerous and elegant Silver Lynx, Drew is no master of battle and poise. He’s still struggling to use his super senses rather than simply suffer from them. Despite this, he doesn’t shy away from the dangers of being a sidekick, and it’s obvious he cares about the people in his life, and shoulders an awful lot of responsibility . Readers won’t doubt that this is one sidekick who has the heart of a hero, even if he’s got a lot to learn. He’s also fun and funny to read, injecting wry observations and notes on the every present sensory input he deals with day in and day out. For all that he has a lot on his plate, readers won’t find Drew to be a complainer he’s a decent story narrator that brings depth to the overall story arc. In this case, the first person POV is a true strength of this book. Without Andrew’s “voice” it wouldn’t have been nearly as accessible and enjoyable to read.
The other sidekicks and Supers in this book stand out vividly–the author allows them to be unique enough that they do not fall into stereotypes. At the same time, readers can suspend their disbelief and accept that these are Supers, with powers and abilities similar to those they’ve seen in movies and comics. The author never turns these individuals into caricatures and so manages to maintain a level of drama and serious tension in his book that could otherwise be lost.
When it comes to the story itself readers will have to suspend their disbelief a bit. This is an alternate reality where super powered beings are part of the regular landscape. There are villains around with dangerous powers and high profile crimes. There are new broadcasts covering astonishing heroic rescues. And while the author provides some unique characters, he’s also faithfully pursuing a super hero storyline. Expect action, adventure, betrayal, doubt, and beyond all else a big wrap up finale. It wouldn’t really be much of a Super hero story without those elements. It’s the execution of the story elements and what’s going on inside Andrew’s mind that deepen the story and make so much more. There are some powerful and poignant scenes, particularly between Drew and his would-be mentor (and what kid doesn’t know what it’s like to have an adult in their lives who has let them down?). Occasionally, we’re reminded that this is a dangerous ‘reality’ that these sidekicks in training inhabit. People die, or sometimes get badly injured. And that can have a profound effect upon them. For a middle school reader who has absorbed the mythos and the excitement of heroes, this book isn’t going to dull the passion, but it might provide some sobering thoughts and questions that the reader can take away.
Oh, and did I mention the writing? I’ve got to mention the writing. John David Anderson succeeds in creating a distinctive and realistic voice for his first person POV narrator. He makes the flow of story and structure of the chapters look effortless, which can only mean a heck of a lot of good writing on his part. The tone is light, but not comedic — readers will likely find it easy to get drawn into the main character’s story and cheer him on. The pacing is, to my mind, skillfully handled, I never felt the plot bogged down in detail, nor that the action overwhelmed everything else. The story moves quickly and I suspect even reluctant readers may dive into this book without too much hesitation. None of the superhero fiction I’ve read to date has managed to combine this kind of written ability with a story line that does it justice the way Sidekicked has.
One minor quibble. The book contains a prologue in third person POV where readers are introduced to a high drama action scene with Captain Marvelous. This is the Captain’s only appearance–he’s there only to introduce readers to the Titan and set the stage for our sidekicks in the future. It isn’t so much that any of the prologue is bad, but rather that I found it completely unnecessary since most of what happens in the Prologue is never again mentioned in the story. I don’t think Captain Marvelous comes up at all–so why start the story off with him? It’s also slightly jarring to switch from third person POV to first person POV in the first chapter.
I think this story will appeal to fantasy/sf readers, but will also be accessible to a larger audience that may not be as familiar with genre fiction, but is likely to have some knowledge of superheroes. Those who’ve enjoyed Powerless by Matthew Cody and The Cloak Society by Jeramy Kraatz should give this a try!
You can check out John David Anderson’s website here.
Happy Reading! ^_^