A year ago, I enthusiastically and admiringly reviewed The Big Splash by Jack D Ferraiolo. And, a year ago his second middle grade novel, Sidekicks, was released. Newly issued in paperback, I finally got around to reading (actually, I mostly listened to the audio which is brilliantly read by Ramon de Ocampo and Jack Garrett) Sidekicks and I am amazed to say that I think it is even better than Ferraiolo's debut novel. While I loved The Big Splash and all the humor, creativity and fantastic characters that Ferraiolo packed into that mystery novel, with Sidekicks he takes it to the next level, writing a book that is filled with emotion, excitement, action and romance. Yes, romance. Despite the kid-friendly cartoon cover, there is a fair amount of kissing that goes on in Sidekicks between the thirteen year old stars of this story, which is kicked off with a bit of adolescent embarrassment and angst.
While my main role as a reviewer of books for young readers is to present what I find to be the best in the world of kid's books based on my love of and experience with this corner of the literary world, as a parent who realizes that not everyone can pre-read each book their children read, I feel that I have the secondary role of letting parents know if there are any aspects of a book I review and love that they might want to know about before passing it on. I often feel that giving a book the appropriate reading level (like TEEN) is a singular way of explaining the existence and context of violence, sex, sexuality, profanity, etc in a book, but occasionally I have to spell things out. So, here goes. If you are a parent who does not mind your child reading a story with a romantic relationship as part of the plot, almost everything that occurs in Sidekicks is perfectly appropriate for a child with a fifth grade reading level, which I why I gave this book a "MIDDLE GRADE" rating. The one aspect of the novel that you might like to be forewarned of and possibly talk to your child about before or while s/he is reading this phenomenal book occurs in the first chapter. Bright Boy, the thirteen year old, yellow tights wearing main character in Sidekicks gets an erection while rescuing a beautiful woman who is in shock after being dangled and dropped off the roof of an eighty-story high building. Ferraiolo never uses the word I did and he handles the scene with his superb sense of humor and understanding of the way teenage boy brains work. And this unfortunate occurrence (which is captured by cameramen in a news helicopter) is not gratuitous or for the sake of humor only. It is actually essential to the plot in so many ways and is so well written that I'm going to share it with you here. After catching her in his arms, the stunned, disheveled woman nuzzles her face in Bright Boy's neck and he gets a glimpse of her pink lace bra, thinking
The activity below my belt starts before I can even think to stop it. I realize what's going on and start thinking about baseball, about sharks, about world geography . . . anything.
"That was amazing," she whispers, her lips pressed up against my ear. "You're amazing."
And there it is. Game, set, match. I'm standing at full attention. Puberty, one; self-control, zero.
All right . . . I can still get out of this with little or no damage. All I have to do is put her down and get the heck out of here. I start to lower her, but then she starts running her fingers through the back of my hair . . .
Oh God . . . What do I do now? Maybe she's really into me. But maybe she isn't? Maybe she's just being nice. Or what if she's in shock and has no idea where she is or what she's doing? But then what if she accidentally brushes against "it," and "it" totally like wakes her up? And she suddenly realizes she's gone from being thrown off a roof by a juiced-up freak to being held several stories off the ground by a teen-aged pervert wearing bright yellow tights? Oh God . . . Phantom Justice never trained me for this.
A few more indirect jokes about Bright Boy's erection are made in the second chapter of the book (pitching a bright yellow tent, a banana in your tights, etc) and this media attention focused on him only serves to intensify the sense of alienation and loneliness that Bright Boy's alter-ego, Scott Hutchinson, feels when he is at school. At home, he has Louis, an ex-con, ex-mixed martial arts fighter that Phantom Justice (aka Trent Clancy) took in a few years before he adopted Scott. Louis trains Scott, both mentally and physically for his role as a super hero sidekick, and also acts as a parental figure to him. But once Scott leaves the house for Harbinger Prep school, no one is on his side until he's called upon to transform into Bright Boy. On top of that, a gang of bullies has long targeted Scott. Not only does Scott have to pretend to be intimidated by them, he has to control his plus/plus super abilities (strength and speed/reflexes) to keep from pummeling them. Adding to his isolation is the fact that, despite the media attention and repeated pleas, Phantom Justice/Trent refuses to update the costume Scott has been wearing since he was six. When longtime nemesis Dr Chaotic (the only known living super with intelligence as his plus) and his sidekick, Monkeywrench (plus/plus speed and strength) escape from prison and add to Scott's misery, things seem hopeless. In the midst of a tense moment (Dr Chaotic and Phantom Justice are engaged in a "big cliché contest and they're both determined to win") Bright Boy loses his cool and lunges at Monkeywrench, who has been mocking him relentlessly. The fight escalates, spills out of the warehouse (typical setting for super and villain confrontations) and across neighboring rooftops. When the two sidekicks crash through a roof, their masks unintentionally come off and Bright Boy learns that, not only is his nemesis one of his classmates at Harbinger, but that Monkeywrench is a SHE and not a he.
The story takes off from there and Scott finds himself unable to get Allison Mendes, daughter of Dr Chaotic (Dr Edward Simmons) out of his mind. The two strike up a wary friendship with Allison always seeming to have the upper hand, mostly because Scott is so shy, introverted and sheltered. There is a very funny scene where she treats him to a gyro, something he's never had. While he marvels at its deliciousness and shovels the whole thing in his mouth, Allison wonders that Scott has lived in New York City his whole life and never experienced or explored anything more than the rooftops that he often finds himself on as Bright Boy. It is Allison who takes Scott to Jimmy's Army/Navy Surplus store and helps (and buys with her father's credit card) him assemble a new Bright Boy outfit, which he leaves the store wearing. Allison slips into a nearby alley and puts on her sidekick costume, an even newer one that reveals that Monkeywrench is in fact a girl, and the two take off across the city, fighting, running and jumping from rooftop to rooftop having the time of their lives. Their chase ends with a mid-ari catch and a bear hug on top of a cargo truck that turns from tickles into a kiss. A kiss that is caught by at least ten people on their phones and transmitted around the country, making them instantly famous and fabulous.
Just when I thought that Sidekicks was leaning toward being an allegorical story of young people learning about themselves, each other and breaking away from the bonds of family and home to forge an independent life, Ferraiolo cranks up the action and turns this story into a thriller that is hard to put down and even had me shouting "No!" at a few points. As the review of at Publisher's Weekly notes, "What starts as a tongue-in-cheek sendup of the superhero genre rapidly swerves into new and engaging territory as Ferraiolo reveals the story's true depths." Without giving too much away, it seems that Phantom Justice and Dr Chaotic have been colluding for years, mostly in the interest of making money from the corporations that hire them to draw attention to their business ventures by having them openly fight in front of their logos or pretend to protect, steal and fight over company properties like the secret plans for a car that could get eighty miles per gallon without using hybrid technology. Not only have the two been rigging all their fights and others, but Phantom Justice might just be responsible for the dwindling numbers of plus/plus superheroes. All of this, combined with their growing popularity among the younger demographics makes the continued existence of Bright Boy and Monkeywrench tenuous. And that's not even half the story. Scott and Allison's budding relationship, her insistence that her father is not a villain and her growing desire to help people who are truly in trouble the way Scott does become entwined with fantastic murder plots, crazy special technology and weaponry and a secret government organization that has a mole at Harbinger.
The action, adventure and intimate look into the lives of superheroes that Ferraiolo writes about in Sidekicks are fascinating. But, like any truly great book, what makes it fantastic are the characters. Scott Hutchins is an immediately real-feeling character and his growth over the course of the book is a joy to watch. Allison Mendes is fun right from the start, with her confidence, her humor and her growing fondness for Scott. As he proved in The Big Splash, Ferraiolo has a way with crafting a memorable character. I know that Scott and Allison will be rumbling around in my head for a long time and, while his next book, The Quick Fix, sequel to The Big Splash, is due out this fall, I really, REALLY hope we see more of Bright Boy and Monkeywrench in the future. In fact, Sidekicks is such a visually detailed, character driven book that I imagined the movie version as I read. This is one book that I would LOVE to see made into a movie, adding a level of depth and intelligence to the usual tween fare out there now. For a very cool behind the scenes look at the making of the cover of Sidekicks, check out Mishaps and Adventures, a blog by Chad W Beckerman, art director and cover designer at Abrams/Amulet.
Source: Review Copy and Audio Book (from the library)