Superhero chapter books for kids. They’re out there. Sure they are. Still, I kind of feel like the wizarding trend Harry Potter started sort of took the steam out of any superhero tales we might have been privy to. Generally speaking, if a kid has magical powers in a book then there’s a lot of mysticism or magic surrounding the discovery. The plain old I-woke-up-and-could-lift-a-bus method of everyday powers is more popular in comics, but not so hot in written literature for young `uns. I do wonder why this is. Maybe it’s a residual distaste some people still retain for the superhero comic book genre. Maybe it’s the silly tights. Whatever the case, I feel like there’s a lot of room out there for good middle grade chapter books about kids with super duper abilities. Powerless by Matthew Cody definitely fills that void, and ends up being a fun and original story about a kid who has to keep others from ending up like himself. You know. Normal.
In the little town of Noble’s Green there is a peculiar situation. On occasion kids in the town will develop abilities far beyond those of normal kids. Maybe it’ll be super speed, or strength, or flying, or whatever. The point is, these kids have their own rules in place to understand who they are. And one of those rules is, "It Ends at Thirteen". Daniel has just moved to Noble’s Green, and though he has no super abilities of his own he befriends the super kids and determines to find out why it is that they all lose their superpowers on the night of their thirteenth birthdays. What he discovers in the course of his explorations is a situation that has existed for decades, and a villain of such sheer cunning, Daniel won’t know who to believe or trust next.
Fair play to Cody, because this book has a killer opening. Heck, it booktalks itself! Listen to this: Michael wakes up and it’s his thirteenth birthday. And he’s excited but it feels like he’s forgotten something. Something important. Anyway, he wakes up, opens his eyes, and then he sees them. Pictures. Pictures all over the room. Pictures of him flying. It wouldn’t be so creepy of course, if it weren’t for the fact that they’re drawings he must have made and he can’t remember drawing them. See? The booktalk practically writes itself. There are few things creepier than children’s drawings when used in the right context. The only problem with the opening of the book is that there’s a little tidbit of Michael flying before this wake up sequence. It would have been much cooler if the Prologue started as Michael wakes up, sees the pictures, has a mild freak out, and gets on with his life.
Part of what I like about the book is how backwards the concept is. Children’s fantasies abound with stories of kids coming into their power or magical skills when they hit puberty. It’s a big old metaphor, of course, but one that kids dig. Puberty = scary / awesome newness. So what are we to make a book where kids turn thirteen and suddenly their amazing abilities go away? Well, it’s sort of the Peter Pan syndrome, yes? The idea that with adulthood you abandon the fun and imagination of your own youth. Cody’s even playing with this idea with the initial Michael sequence. "… thirteen was the age when you started taking care of yourself, when you started figuring things out …" Later when Michael and Daniel talk, he says that he had to distance himself from his old super friends because they were still into kid stuff. It works, if you see it in that light.
A good bad guy is hard to find, and even when you do find one you need to make sure he or she has just a glint of something human in them. Otherwise they’re just threatening your hero’s body, not their soul. In superhero literature, the best villains are the ones you can sort of understand. Magneto. Dr. Doom. Mxyzptlk (well… maybe not Mxyzptlk). And the villain in this book (not to give anything away) is just right. You completely understand where they’re coming from. Heck, you might even find yourself agreeing with them. The danger Cody runs with creating such a sympathetic baddie is that the audience might be even more swayed by their reasonings than the hero. I think Cody walks the line pretty well on this one, but there will definitely be a couple kids reading the story that think to themselves, "Huh! You know . . . they have a point there."
The internal logic works really well, to my relief. A fellow librarian of mine complained that there’s no explanation of how the kids got their powers, but actually Cody covers that ground pretty well. There was only one dropped plot point that nagged at me (i.e. why does Eric have the Shroud comics hidden in his room?). Still, I’m sure there’s an explanation somewhere. Additionally, I don’t think I’m giving too much away here when I say how relieved I was when the book ended and Daniel didn’t suddenly find himself with his own superpowers. Cody certainly could have "rewarded" his hero with that kind of a topper. But since the whole point of the book is to show how important a single normal everyday kid is in the face of extraordinary powers, it would have been pretty two-faced to end the story with him magically getting a couple of his own. Cody already has a pretty good surprise ending in place anyway. The book is a good little stand alone title but should he wish to create a couple sequels, there’s plenty to work with. Believe me.
The best thing about the book is that it doesn’t settle on being one kind of story. Sure, it’s about superheroes, but it’s also a mystery. Daniel’s hero isn’t the mysterious Johnny Noble who started all this superheroism, but Sherlock Holmes. So kids with a thing for flying and invisibility will like the book, and so will kids who just want a good whodunit. Powerless ends up being one of those unassuming little chapter books that may find itself getting a strong fanbase all thanks to having something for everyone. A hoot.
On shelves now.
Source: Reviewed from ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) donated by the author.
- the excelsior file
- Owl in the Library
- Phoenix Book Company Blog
- Book Trends
- The O.W.L.
- Mr. Ripley’s Enchanted Books
- Ms. Yingling Reads
- Book Wind
Other Online Reviews:
- Download a chapter sample if you’d like to get a taste.
- This is a kind of cool picture featuring an element from the book drawn by Kristopher Pollard .
- Blurbs from this book (and this is quite impressive) came from Jeff Smith and Jonathan Stroud.
Here’s the book trailer.
And here’s a Q & A with the author himself.