Is it just me, or is this The Year of the Superhero in middle-grade and YA books?
I'm all up in the Michael Owen Carroll right now of course, having just reviewed Super Human here on Pink Me; and The Rise of Renegade X is sitting on my to-read pile; I just finished Michael Grant's The Magnificent 12: The Call last night: plus we're listening to Mike Lupica's Hero in the car, and holy god - not since I took one for the team and listened to The Da Vinci Code have I been more appalled by an author's lazy writing, glacial pace, disrespect for the reader...
...oh wait, where was I? Ahead of myself, that's where. That's what happens when you try to write book reviews while listening to The Flaming Lips. "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song", off At War With The Mystics, is what inspired the title of this post. By the way, if you have food issues, don't click that link, just watch them perform on Letterman, below.
It is also apparently The Year of Superhero Books Written by Guys Named Michael. Weird. Take that, trend trackers.
Ok so I've introduced Hero, right? On to The Call, which is the first book in Michael Grant's new series The Magnificent 12. This book is the superhero book's superhero. The Call is fast-paced, suspenseful, funny as heck, and communicates respect for the reader on every page. Here's a quick 4th-wall-busting aside by the author:
One of the rules of Great Literature is: show, don't tell. But one of the other rules of Great Literature is: don't go on and on with boring scenes where nothing happens but a lot of talking. So let's just have a quick glance at what Jarrah told Mack and Stefan on the way into stunning Sydney Harbour, and them move on, shall we?
In a perfect world, Michael Grant and Mike Lupica would be Facebook friends, and Grant would have made that his Facebook status one day last year, and Lupica would have gone, "Huh." And we all would have been spared the endless recapping and exposition and recapping of the exposition that happens in Hero.
When the very common trope that I call I'll Just Use this Old Sword Stuck in this Stone Over Here, in which the kid discovers that he/she has superpowers and/or is destined for great and difficult things is used as a coming-of-age metaphor (and in fact, even when it's not), the process of getting to know those new powers, testing them out, experimenting and failing, is the usually the part of such a book during which we as readers can identify most strongly with this all-of-a-sudden-extra-human character. Harry's first boggart, Percy blowing up the bus - we've all blown up the bus, metaphorically speaking am I right? On his first transoceanic flight, Michael Grant's protagonist, the phobia-riddled Mack, is sucked out of an airplane midflight. What does he do? He screams himself hoarse and then passes out. It's only after he comes to again that he half-remembers that he can maybe save the day.
But Lupica's kid, the first time he is faced with evil thugs, knows just what to do. He leaps! He kicks he spins he scares the bad guys off. First try. My kids explained it this way: "Maybe knowing how to use his powers is one of his powers." Sorry, boys. That sounds like a lame explanation even coming from you guys.
Grant, whose previous books have not been, as we say, unpopular, has shifted gears here. The somewhat tragic, epic arc of the Gone books has gotten a goose and a shimmy - while we are still dealing with a Dread Foe, the bad guys in The Call are supernatural, eliminating the moral crises that the Gone characters have to face; the vistas have opened up - Mack and his friend Stefan travel halfway around the world; but most of all, Michael Grant has popped the top off his can of funny.
Here, Mack is getting an explanation from an ancient guy, one of the original Magnificent 12:
"You must understand that this all happened a very long time ago. These were the days before most people knew anything of numbers. We had no algebra. Nor did we partake of geometry. Or long division. Or multiplication."
"So you had..."
"We could add and subtract. In theory. In practice most people could count only to ten. Nine if they'd had an accident with a scythe. Which was very common."
This is to explain, by the way, why the original Magnifica put away the Dread Foe for only 3,000 years instead of forever - 3,000 was the highest number they could come up with. If you're hearing a little Douglas Adams style dry absurdity in there, you're not the only one, sugar. But Grant never takes it over the top - the above is about as self-indulgent as he gets.
In Hero, Lupica does not attempt humor. It's ok, not everyone can do it.
And then there are the women. Now, I've been reading comic books since there were three Hernandez Bros., so I have seen my share of virtuous, ultra-supportive Aunt Mays and peril-prone Mary Janes, and maybe I'm a little hypervigilant about what we see women doing in adventure novels. For instance, I once chided Grant for limiting the women in the first Gone book to making the peanut butter sandwiches and bailing out the boat. He came through in the next two books though, and the girls got to accomplish their fair share of buttkicking.
In The Call, we don't get a human female character until at least halfway through (except for a brief appearance by a specialist bully - "Strictly speaking, Camaro should not have been in the boys' bathroom at all, but the last person who had pointed this out to her now was eating his meals through a straw," go go, Camaro!), but our girl Jarrah makes up for lost time, first saving Mack and Stefan's lives, then taking them into the Australian Outback to see her archaeologist mother, then, oh yeah the thing with the shovel... ok no peanut butter sandwiches here.
In Hero, 14-year-old Zach lives with his mom, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper's daughter Kate, Zach's best friend. His dad has just died. His mom has thrown herself into the campaign for the presidential candidate that Zach's dad had supported. Lupica describes her campaign activities as 'giving parties'. The housekeeper cooks and buys groceries. Kate, who is both pretty and smart, listens to Zach. She gives him advice. He saves her from bad guys. She gazes at him in shock. She doesn't even get to make the peanut butter sandwiches - that's what her mom is for.
Bechdel Test time: does Hero have two female characters? that talk to each other? about something other than a male? No. How about The Call? Well, there's kind of a lot going on once we meet Jarrah and her mom, but sure, they talk to each other. "Are we gonna die?" "Yeah we could die!" That kind of thing. I'm paraphrasing.
I do get asked, from time to time, what's going to be the 'next big series' for kids. Usually, I can't answer that question, not because I don't know what kids like, but because there are awfully few books that appeal to a broad swathe of the kid population. Kids are all different - they like different things. Adults, now, they're easier. Adults can talk themselves into reading things so that they can talk to other people about them, finishing things even though they keep falling asleep over them, reading more books by the same author even if he or she has stopped writing good ones or has in fact died, or because there's going to be a movie.
If there's a key to writing a successful kid book, I think it's this: you put all you've got into it. Every sentence has to be worth reading. Punch it up, then punch it up a little more. Treat this reader as if he or she is the date of your lifetime and if you are not your smartest coolest funniest self, he or she will never agree to go out with you again, and therefore your only chance at happiness will have fled. The books that do that are the books that attract the most readers. (You can bare your soul on the second date.)
And then pray that you get a good cover and a decent title and some marketing resources, and given all that, I'm expecting giant things from The Magnificent 12.