This was on the short list for the Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy Cybils award – I checked out or put on hold all the ones on the short list that I hadn’t already read.
I realized my recent statement about books I bought after reading from the library was low – I also bought books not just for me but to share with my children, Penny and her Song and Starry River of the Sky.
Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities by Mike Jung.
In Copperplate City, crime has been under control for decades because of efforts of Captain Stupendous. Other cities have their own superheroes, of course, but none of them are quite as awesome as Captain Stupendous. He’s so popular that there are four Captain Stupendous fan clubs of various stripes, including the smallest. Our hero Vincent is the president of the tiny but hardcore Unofficial Captain Stupendous Fan Club. Vincent and the other two members, George and Max, take their fandom very seriously, spending their time watching and analyzing old Captain Stupendous videos. Vincent even finds a way to make every school report he gives focus on Captain Stupendous. It’s a normal life on the edges of middle school until the day when an evil giant robot kidnaps Vincent’s crush, Polly Winnicott-Lee, right in front of him. Captain Stupendous saves her, of course, but immediately after, for the first time ever, he fights poorly and has to flee the robot. It’s up to Vincent and his club to figure out what’s going on and help Captain Stupendous defeat the evil Professor Mayhem and his giant robot. Polly also plays an active role, and Vincent’s mother’s boyfriend, the police liaison to Captain Stupendous, is also helpful.
This book has so much good stuff in it! Vincent is biracial, with a Chinese-American father and a blond mother. His parents are divorced, and while they clearly aren’t best friends, there are neither attempts to get them back together nor to turn one or the other of them into a villain. Max is Jewish and Polly Korean-American; there’s also a good spread of income levels among the characters. Overall, it’s great diversity, but without Jung ever making a big deal of any of it; some of these details don’t even come out until late in the story. There are also tough real-life social issues as the fan club members have to negotiate more serious things than they have before, and Vincent trying to learn how to negotiate relationships across the gender divide, so vast at that age. The story is told with clever phrasing, sly references to classic comics for fans (I caught the name of the elementary school; my love also caught Excelsior Pizza as a reference) and comic-style illustrations. The kids all feel like real, sympathetic middle-schoolers, involved in a fabulous adventure involving superheros, giant robots, and aliens. What more could you want?
Well, OK, it’s a little long and dense for my dyslexic eight-year-old to read to himself, though he saw the book and was very disappointed about that. He’d do fine having it read to him, though, and a reader slightly more advanced in age or skill should be fine. Both my husband and I had a great time with it.