In the distance, I see the red-blue flicker of police lights, but they’re too far away to do any good. From the corner of my eye, I see the missile streak towards a nearby building. I squeeze my eyes shut and wonder if it’ll hurt.
But the explosion never comes.
After a few ragged breaths, I peek upwards. The missile is frozen in mid-air, like a wayward prop. A black jet hovers close by, its sleek body a sword in the sky. The letters L-O-S are printed in bold font on the bottom. My breath snags in my throat. The League of Supers.
The robot screeches.
The jet’s hatch opens.
A girl dives from the machine like a falcon. As she passes the missile, she reaches out and brushes it with her bare fingertips. As though in slow motion, I see the missile dissolve. Its shell liquefies. Its wires melt. The remaining parts fall to the ground, harmless as dust, as the liquid metal transforms into a sword in the girl’s hand. Without pause, the girl continues to plummet. She spins to an abrupt stop just above the city streets. Her golden locks flare around her. Her emerald-green eyes flash.
Gweneira Kendricks, the Super, no longer wearing her bulky everyday clothes but a sleek, new Supersuit. Lit by the afternoon sun, she strikes a pose, one arm out, hand beckoning, one arm on her hip, legs shoulder width apart.
In a world where super-children earn public hero worship by fighting villains, Beata Bell waits impatiently for the onset of her powers. After all, her ancestor, Frances Bell, was the first Super, and powers tend to run in the family. But as her best friend, Gwen, becomes a poly-powered wonder-kid, Beata remains frustratingly normal, a “civvie” child of Super parents, a “dud.” Beata has to swallow her resentment when a new villain threatens her city, and with no superpowers, she must find the courage and skills to save her society, her friends and herself.
In Super!, her first novel, Jennifer Chen has managed to combine the action of a superhero comic book with the drama of political conspiracy, and, along the way, she makes a powerful statement about growing up.
In action scenes, Gwen streaks through the sky, fighting “octobots” and melting metal. However, Beata and her friends, Ling, an aspiring investigative reporter, and Nuha, the daughter of a computer millionaire, perform heroic feats themselves. Beata is a computer whiz who creates brilliant apps that get the group out of awkward situations. Ling is fearless and determined to fulfill the dreams of her immigrant parents who sacrificed everything to move to Toronto. Nuha is a seriously intelligent, loyal friend with a secret power of her own. Aided reluctantly by Dieter, who uses his minor-league powers to bully other students, the group works together to fight bad guys.
It takes more than comic-book “kapow” to solve the problems in Super!. It also takes intelligence, strategic thinking, technology and courageous teamwork. Beata and her friends have what it takes to figure out a deep and brutal conspiracy, reveal it to the country and defy public opinion to make sure truth and fairness are triumphant. Beata’s superpowers are not what she expects them to be, but she is no less effective than some of her classmates who can fly, shoot lasers and melt metal.
Though Super! is clearly an action fantasy novel, the story and the characters are complex and have much to say about modern life for young people today. Beata’s friends reflect racial diversity and confound gender stereotypes. Beata loves to code computers and solve her Rubic’s cube to relax, and she and Nuha build on each other’s enthusiasm. Ling’s fearless determination to jump into the middle of the action drags her friends along with her. Rather than passive and helpless, the girls are intelligent and courageous. Beata’s Sound Isolator app enables them to eavesdrop on top-secret conversations, and her Tracking app allows them to follow the embattled Gwen as well as save Beata from the forces of destruction. Even the villains are sympathetic, motivated not merely by a desire to rule the world, but by a flawed vision of how a good world should look.
Beyond the clever gadgets and exciting chases, however, Super! makes a serious statement about conformity and social yearning. Beata’s longing for powers echoes the adolescent longing for acceptance and popularity. Gwen’s high-profile life, which seems so glamourous from a distance, is devastating when social media turns on her, manipulated by evil forces and fed by a shallow celebrity culture. Ling’s parents’ struggles to fit into a new society feed her determination to succeed in their adopted country. The girls must shake off socially constructed expectations and conformity to be true to what they really desire, just as young people today must find their own way. In the process, each character achieves her own empowerment.
That said, Super! is far from a polemic about growing up. Well planned, consistent in plot and character, the novel allows the message to emerge organically. While many of the characters’ skills and social influence are unrealistically advanced for middle-school kids, the genre of the book makes the exaggerated claims forgivable.
Super! is pitched at middle school readers, but it is easy to see its humour, action and optimism appeal to older readers as well. Young people will snatch up Super! for the action, but the book will leave them thinking long after the last octobot is defeated.
Wendy Phillips is a former high school teacher-librarian and the author of the Governor General's Literary Award-winning young adult novel, Fishtailing.