Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sidekicks by Jack D. Ferraiolo

(Warning: The book discussed in today’s post deals with young male sexuality. Since I have never been teenage boy, this is bound to be awkward. Since I am full of unverified opinions on all kinds of topics, this is bound to be very soap-box-y.)

Now that I’m blogging again, what work of classic literature am I going to tackle first?

I’ve been on a bit of a superhero kick lately (no pun intended), and I have a long-standing love for juvenile/YA fiction.  

Sidekicks (Amulet Books 2011), a middle-grade superhero novel by Jack D. Ferraiolo, seemed like a perfect fit.

I enjoyed the middle of this book. Once the arch-nemesis is revealed the story picks up speed, the dialogue becomes both more interesting and more believable, and the plot takes several unexpected turns. It was all good, action-driven fun. 

But the beginning and the end gave me some problems. 

The book is marketed as middle school fiction (Amazon suggests ages 10 and up), and for the most part it reads like light-hearted, slightly satirical middle grade fare. But the story begins with the hero, Scott Hutchinson (a.k.a. Bright Boy) rescuing a woman and, to his great embarrassment, experiencing an erection. All while news teams film him and shout insults.

A recurring debate in juvenile fiction is whether to mention sex and puberty and how much to mention. To oversimplify, the arguments for introducing sexual changes generally fall under two categories: 1) that this makes the story more realistic and the characters more relatable and 2) that this lets kids know that puberty is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

Sidekicks sets itself up as a realistic (give or take a little for the sake of comedy) comic book story. Phantom Justice and Bright Boy fight in our New York City (rather than in a stand-in like Gotham or Metropolis). They have our technology and something of a medical explanation for superpowers. Yet the morning news show continually replays the footage of Scott’s boner. I had some trouble buying that premise. It’s no surprise that the media can be cruel to young celebrities (Rebecca Black, anyone?). But the coverage Ferraiolo depicts seems more likely for late night shows and internet sites. And the news plays nothing but that clip for about twenty minutes. No news day is that slow. 

When Scott goes to school, everyone is talking about what a “perv” Bright Boy is. Everyone. It would be one thing if the character only felt that everyone was talking about it. That would be realistic. That would be teenagehood in a nutshell. But even the kindergarteners are talking about it. Scott’s mentor doesn’t have any encouragement to offer beyond, “Yeah, you embarrassed yourself on national television. Forget about it and train.”

What exactly is the message middle school boys are supposed to get from this? “Your sexual desires exerting themselves will result in the single most shameful and embarrassing moment of your life. And everyone will notice. And no one will forget it. And you will live eternally in the shadow of your shame. (Or at least, until you learn to dress better and manage to kiss a girl. Because then you will be virile and manly. And not just a perv.)”

Or maybe I’m over-thinking this. Maybe the message is simply that erections are hi-LAR-ious. 

Someone who’s actually experienced the boy’s version of puberty can correct me, but I don’t sense that this book is setting middle-schoolers up for a healthy understanding of their bodies. 

Another problem I had with the beginning is a problem I often have with stories marketed toward middle/high school students. (Here’s the point where I step away from Sidekicks specifically and climb onto another of my soapboxes.)

It's a story-telling trend to try to garner sympathy for the main character by placing him or her in embarrassing situations right off the bat. We all love an underdog. The unpopular kid. The under-appreciated employee. The long-suffering sibling/child/parent. We’ve all felt this way. We see ourselves in these characters. And this setup makes it easy later on to show that the character’s circumstances have changed.

The pitfalls here are two-fold. First, being a character the reader/viewer pities is not quite the same thing as being a character the reader/viewer relates to. Sometimes, the writer wants to garner too much sympathy too quickly and ends up putting the main character into horrifically embarrassing situations. At this point the reader may withdraw emotionally from the main character because the reader does not want to see him/herself as capable of suffering such embarrassment (particularly if the character seems unusually passive in the face of his/her difficulties).

And the second pitfall is that moving from unpopular to popular, unsuccessful to successful, or uncool to cool, is an easy change to depict, but it does not indicate any sort of lasting change in the character. Often we understand “more popular” to be shorthand for “more confident and self-assured.” But self-confidence, by definition, comes from the inside and cannot be given through the sudden approval of peers. It’s important to show that the change is more than external. And since character change is plot (generally), cheap changes are like long journeys that go nowhere. 

Moving back to the book I’m supposedly reviewing, as I said, I enjoyed the plot twists in the middle of the book. It’s not often that I read a book for middle-schoolers where I’m surprised by the plot turns. I appreciated Ferraiolo’s inclusion of modern technology. (I laughed when Scott pointed out that his phone can probably do ninety percent of what Phantom Justice’s Main Crime Computer can do.) I liked the parody of the whole Batman and Robin setup. And I particularly enjoyed the villains.

A few hours after I finished Sidekicks, Fridge Logic started to kick in. The ending flowed naturally out of the rest of the story, but some of the solutions could have been explained better or hinted at earlier on. And there were loose ends. I suspect a sequel. But I have no idea if a particular character is dead. I get the impression I’m supposed to know whether or not this character is alive but the author just forgot to make it clear.

I think Ferraiolo is a good writer, and I suspect that with a little more care and attention Sidekicks could have been a better book.

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