Tuesday marks the release of author John David Anderson's young-adult novel Sidekicked, which explores the highs and lows of being a middle-schooler who happens to be a superhero sidekick. The lead character Drew has the added challenge that his superhero mentor is "a former legend who now spends more time straddling barstools than fighting crime." It's tough enough to be in middle school, but Drew's abilities ("his hearing, sight, taste, touch, and smell are the most powerful on the planet") make him the quintessentially oversensitive kid.
Anderson was ready and willing to chat about the challenges of getting inside the head of a middle-school hero.
Tim O'Shea: What's the key to capturing the tone of middle school in your story, to such a degree it appeals to a middle school audience?
John David Anderson: It's a balancing act. Middle-school readers struggle with many of the same issues adults do: They have issues with trust, identity, empowerment, relationships. But they have a more limited amount of life experience to draw from so I think the experience is more raw somehow, more intense. Thankfully all of the teens and tweens I know have developed a highly tuned sarcasm that buffers them somewhat from the angst. I try to tap into that humor so that readers can step back and maybe laugh at some of the coming of age junk that they are facing as well. Honestly I'm 38 years old and I'm still coming of age. I've just learned to laugh at myself.
When you started the novel, how did you come up with the ideas of who would have which superpowers?
Drew's powers were set from the beginning. That was key: to give him powers that I could draw on throughout the story but were outside of the mainstream. Lots of superheroes have heightened senses (Wolverine, Spider-Man), but they are like "add-on" powers. You can't use them to smash a henchman's face in. The others just came to me as I wrote them, though in some cases I molded the power around the personality (i.e. Gavin's macho exterior). In contrast to the sidekicks, the Supers needed an array of powers to show what it's like in the major leagues.
How far were you in the development of this story before you felt comfortable with Drew's voice? Who of the cast proved the most challenging to write?
Not long at all. Drew's voice is my voice. It's the same voice I use in the interior monologue that provides color commentary for my life. The challenge there was deciding how much of his world to share. Due to his powers, Drew is capable of experiencing things with a much greater intensity than I am. For example, I could have gone over the top and described the way everyone in middle-school smelled for 20 pages, except I didn't want to bore the reader. Or make them sick.
The most challenging was probably Jenna. She's so much stronger than Drew in so many ways so it took me some time to tease out her complexities and insecurities. Even now, with the novel finished, her character still has some secrets that I haven't hacked.
What did you enjoy most about exploring the concept of the thin line between good and evil/right and wrong breaking down?
That's the thematic crux of the novel, so it was fun gauging it from the dual perspective of heroes and middle-schoolers both. Up to a certain age that line is pretty clear cut, and I think we want it to stay that way so that we know which side to stay on. But the older we get the more we see the line start to blur and our definitions change. Drew is at that age where the line is getting fuzzy and he's fighting so hard to keep it in focus. Plus he's learning to rationalize, which is another word for "make up excuses for behavior he knows is not exactly righteous." It makes for a more interesting narrative; it's always more fun exploring gray areas than black-and-white ones.
What inspired you to set up a H.E.R.O. sign-up form on your website?
I'm not sure. It's like the Little Orphan Annie Decoder pin from A Christmas Story. Or all those cereal box mail-aways, or the club houses you build in your back yard. Everyone wants to feel like they belong to something special. We are all searching for communities that give us a sense of purpose. While being a member of H.E.R.O. doesn't give you anything tangible, it does give you a chance to imagine yourself in Drew's shoes, trying to find your niche. Plus I enjoy reading the reasons people have for wanting to join up.
I love at one point in the novel when you had Drew talking about how he and his fellow sidekicks imitate each others' powers in conversation. How did you come up with such a great detail for the dynamics of these characters?
A lot of the novel was juxtaposing the mundane, everyday rigmarole of middle-school life with the extraordinary challenges of superheroes, and the most fun was seeing them collide. What happens when you use your super powers during a math test? How would you use super strength in gym? Friends imitate each other. They mock each other. This is one of those funny crossover moments where the super and the ordinary congeal.
You work in some great points about being a sidekick and the challenge of living a secret life from one's parents in that situation -- to be exact, one character points out "lying to your parents isn't good for your karma." Was that a line you had rolling around in your head to use at some juncture in the story -- or did it come to you semi-organically as you developed the story?
I guess I am a semi-organic writer through and through. I hardly ever sit down at my desk with words already formulated waiting to trickle from my fingertips. I reread. I hem and haw. I type furiously. I hit the backspace even more furiously. It's a very spontaneous process, but I wouldn't call it fluid, exactly. There's a lot of back and forth, hack and slash, experimentation. When something works — a line or a description or a whole scene — I just hope I have enough authorial sensibility to realize it and leave it the heck alone.
The book is dedicated to "TK" ...
A-ha. You read the advance-reader copy. Editors use TK as shorthand for "To come." My awesome editor Jordan says it's probably because TC is shorthand for "Table of Contents." The editing business is full of all these little abbreviations. Like stet, which means "let it stand" or this could use a little tightening, which means "cut this chapter, it blows." The real book is dedicated to my parents. My father is a Vietnam veteran who ran away from home at Drew's age and carved out a life for himself. My mother is a fierce, passionate woman who has worked tirelessly all of her life to provide for her family. They are everyday heroes, a mixture of the super and the routine.
When you were a kid, who was your favorite sidekick to read about?
I didn't have a favorite sidekick. When I was a kid if you wanted a sidekick you were kind of stuck with Robin. There were others, but he was the poster boy. If you ask me as an adult I would say Arthur the accountant/moth whose motto is "Not in the face! Not in the face!" That would be me.
Anything we should discuss that I neglected to ask you?
You didn't ask me if I thought Mighty Mouse could beat up Superman. The obvious answer is no. But then you realize that Superman nearly gets beat several times over by Lex Luthor — a follicly challenged man with no real superpowers to speak of outside of a big bank roll and a high IQ — so you think, yeah ... maybe the mouse could take him.