It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane…
Original Superheroes In Children’s Fiction
by Meredith Davis
Take a glance at the box office this summer and note the success of Ironman, Spiderman, and The Avengers, to name just a few. There’s obviously something appealing about superheroes, and it isn’t a recent phenomenon. They’ve been around since the 1930s, appearing primarily in comic books and on screen. More recently, superheroes are swooping onto the pages of children’s books, from picture books to middle grade to young adult novels. Sometimes in comic book form, sometimes in stories told without frames, these new heroes strike poses similar to those of their predecessors.
I confess that I have a vested interest in examining original superheroes. My current work in progress features a young protagonist who discovers he has special powers. If developed properly, he’ll become what he’s always dreamed of being: a superhero. Recently, an agent read a draft of the manuscript at a conference, and mentioned that several “superhero manuscripts” had crossed her desk in recent months. I was both threatened and challenged when I realized my manuscript wasn’t the only original superhero tale competing for an agent’s attention.
So what is it about a superhero that makes him (or her) particularly stellar, stupendous, and, well, super? What is it about superheroes that readers find so compelling? What makes them tick?
Superheroes have the power to do things we ordinary mortals can’t. They may defy gravity or run faster than speeding bullets. There’s something appealing about a character who can do more than we can, and for younger audiences this appeal is especially strong.
Young readers lack control in their lives. They’re told where to go, what to eat, and when to go to bed. Divorce happens, and their lives change forever. In the middle grade book Animorphs: The Invasion, Tobias’ parents are divorced and he gets shuttled across the country from one parent to another. But Tobias is no ordinary kid. He can morph into the shape of an animal. When Tobias morphs into the shape of his cat, he says, “Being a cat is so . . . it’s . . . I can’t even describe it. You’re so strong, for one thing. Just all this coiled power, and the way you can move!” Later, Tobias will use this superpower to protect the world from alien invaders, but it’s just as appealing to a kid to be able to gain some control over his sometimes out-of-control surroundings as it is to outsmart evil and defeat the bad guys.
It’s also entertaining and satisfying to see superpowers at work. In James Patterson’s young adult book Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment, Max is running from bloodthirsty hounds and evil Erasers. She’s about to be caught when she breaks through the trees and finds herself at the edge of the cliff. She jumps, her wings unfurl, and she escapes through her power to fly. The reader lives vicariously through the superhero’s victories, imagining what it might be like to be able to do the same; imagining how she might use those same powers to fight whatever battles she has in her own life.
Good vs. Evil
That’s right, to be a real superhero, you’ve got to be doing good. In general, this means stopping some evil-doer and saving all mankind. A. O. Scott, in a New York Times article, says superhero stories “cater to a persistent hunger for large-scale, accessible narratives of good and evil.”
Bob Graham’s picture book Max is an excellent example, though the stakes aren’t quite as high as world-saving. Baby Max is born into a family of superheroes, and they’re anxiously awaiting the day Max’s superpowers will become apparent. But no matter how often they try to get him to float to the ceiling, he just isn’t interested. He saves little spiders from going down the drain, and rescues a rabbit from a fox. Finally, at the end of the book, Max reveals his superpowers and flies. He jumps out his bedroom window to save a baby bird that has fallen from its nest.
The Real World
There are plenty of books that have characters with powers, and many others with themes of good vs. evil. A character can be considered a superhero when he is endowed with incredible powers, fights evil, and lives and operates in the world as we know it. Everything is almost entirely “normal”, the world functions according to all the rules we are familiar with, except for this one spectacular being. This unique scenario places superhero literature in the realm of magical realism, blending fantastic elements like a human with gills or the ability to grow hundreds of feet tall in seconds with otherwise realistic fiction.
Because these elements can become so fantastic, I would argue that superhero tales are an offshoot of fantasy and science fiction. They take all the creativity of world building and rule-making and assign it to a small set of characters, both noble and nefarious, and then place them in the world we live in. A world where everyone else follows the rules of gravity and human capability. There is a realm of possibility in superhero stories that is exciting to the reader. Who’s to say the innocent-looking lunch lady in the cafeteria isn’t wielding a spatu-copter (spatula helicopter)?
In Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s easy reader graphic novel, Lunch Lady, his superhero has all sorts of gadgets and gizmos that transform her from the average meatloaf wielding, hair-netted lunch provider to Lunch Lady, defender of the bullied and vanquisher of evil. She’s got chicken nugget bombs, a lunch tray laptop, and suction cup rubber gloves at her fingertips. But everything else in the world is real. Right down to the lockers, the school bell, and the homework.
Same Bat Channel, Same Bat Time . . .
As writers, we don’t want to just follow trends or do what’s already been done before. There’s something exciting about hitting on something entirely original, whether premise or setting or superhero. And yet some of the best superheroes on today’s children literature scene, the most original of characters, adhere to these time-tested traits: having powers, fighting good and evil, and living in the real world. Whether we’re looking to Batman or Captain Marvel, by playing within the boundaries of what already works, we can create successful superheroes that carry readers up, up and away.
Applegate, K. A. Animorphs: The Invasion. New York: Scholastic, Inc. 1996.
Dargis, Manohla and A. O. Scott. “Super-Dreams of an Alternate World Order.” 27 June 2012. The New York Times.
Graham, Bob. Max. London: Walker Children’s Paperbacks, 2006.
Krosoczka, Jerrett J. Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
Patterson, Jame. The Angel Experiment: A Maximum Ride Novel. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2007.