“‘When I was little I thought God was like a superhero,’ I say, keeping my eyes down. He doesn’t respond, so I look up. ‘I wanted to be a superhero, too. Not like I wanted to be God, I mean. Just… you know. I wanted to have some kind of power that zapped everything perfect.'” (page 111. Quoted from ARC – language may change.)
That’s Reggie. He writes about a superhero called Night Man, hangs out with his intensely socially-conscious best friend Ruthie, and mostly tries to stay out of the way in school. Apparently, he also likes to spend his time making unsuspecting librarians fall completely head-over-heels for him. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so charmed by a character. From the very first page, Reggie McKnight put some kind of vice grip around my heart and didn’t ever let go.
Reggie had no intention of running for class president. In fact, ever since a public speaking incident on the first day of school that led to his nickname – Pukey – Reggie has done whatever he can to stay out of the spotlight. He’s certainly not looking for responsibility – not in the school government, or at the homeless shelter where his church youth group volunteers. But other people in his life recognize what Reggie does not – that his strong sense of empathy, his willingness to put others first, and his ability to work hard when he cares about a task make him a natural leader. And while his parents, teachers, and friends have never forced leadership on him, they are more than willing to push Reggie along when he finally decides that he’s seen enough of the status quo and begins to seek out ways to foster change in his school and community.
My favorite thing about Reggie is his willingness to change his mind. Not in a wishy-washy way – in an open-minded way that many adults still haven’t figured out. And when he screws up – which he certainly does, sometimes – he has the guts and the grace to admit to his mistakes and work to fix them. As Reggie figures out while talking to his partner in a Big Brother-type program,
‘Even Night Man makes mistakes.’
‘Even though he’s a superhero?’ asks Charlie.
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Being brave enough to make mistakes is, um, um, part of what makes him a superhero.’ There’s a click in my brain when I say that. (page 184. Quoted from ARC – language may change.)
This is a book that doesn’t shy away from touchy subjects – religion, unemployment, race, homelessness, and bullying are all part of Reggie’s story. But Rhuday-Perkovich has a light touch, and works with these topics in a way that is very personal and never without humor. Religion, for example, is an important part of Reggie’s life, and is written about in a way that is forthright and positive while still allowing space for questions and doubts – something that is too rare in books for children that have a religious element, which so often seem either blandly proselytizing or flatly anti-religion. (On a side note – I do think this is changing, with wonderful books like this one, Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr, Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, and others coming out recently.)
While Reggie’s background as a Jamaican-American is central to who he is, it isn’t what the story is about. Stories about slavery or racism can be great books, but those are stories that obviously can’t be told without characters of color – and those subjects are at the center of the majority of books for children that feature African-American characters. This is a story that could easily have been told with a white protagonist, and it’s important that it wasn’t – kids of color have many experiences and stories to tell, and I hope that we will continue to see more and more books that reflect the variety of those stories. (Especially if those books are as good as this one!)
While the topics that the book tackles are important and are handled with grace, it is the characters who make this book special. Every character is nuanced, and almost every character surprised me at some point in the book. The novel is populated by characters like Reggie’s father, with his hierarchy of Caribbean countries (and as a man of Jamaican ancestry, you can guess what country he puts on top!) and his frustration during a period of unemployment; George, an addict from the homeless shelter where Reggie volunteers who, despite his grumpiness, has an incredible capacity to create a feeling of hope in a tough situation; and Reggie’s older sister, who is transitioning from terrifying star-athlete to still-terrifying-but-maybe-not-really girly girl. But the core of the story is with Reggie and his two best friends, Ruthie and Joe C. They’re three very different kids, and sometimes those differences can threaten to pull them apart – when Ruthie tries to forcibly drag her friends into her one-woman revolution, or when white Joe C. tries to teach his black best friends about the history of hip-hop, or when Reggie grows out of the project that was the initial connection between himself and Joe C. But they are three truly good-hearted young people who care about each other deeply. It is only with the support of this network of friends, family, church, and others that Reggie can grow into himself and become a confident young man. They help him learn that he doesn’t have to be a superhero to make a difference in his world.
I know that it’s only January, but I cannot imagine many better books for young people being published in 2010. In fact, I would count this among the best middle grade novels I have ever read. One year from now, I hope that we will all be whispering about how 8th Grade-Superzero is poised to pick up some heavy hardware at the ALA Youth Media Awards. (And now I’m off to bed so I can get up early for the ALA Youth Media Awards!)
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich on the web.