Newt Newman is nobody. Really. Unnoticed. Unappreciated. Unremarkable. So different from the rest of his family. His older brother is the star quarterback of the high school football team. His mother is a frantic real estate agent, and his father is a successful construction manager. Then there’s Newt – the youngest of the family – who helps his mother find her cell phone, rustles his brother out of bed every morning, and makes exquisite breakfasts nobody has time to eat. In Captain Nobody, Newt becomes somebody as his family deals with an unexpected, all-consuming tragedy.
It’s the night of the big football game against the next-town rivals. As brother Chris prepares for the big game, Newt’s parents host a giant pre-game tail-gate party where Newt is once again overlooked. Later that night on the last play of the hard-fought football game, Chris dives headfirst into the end zone to score the game-winning touchdown. As the pile disperses, Chris is found at the bottom, unconscious. Newt’s parents rush to the hospital, beginning a week-long vigil at their comatose son’s side. Mom and Dad tag-team twelve-hour hospital shifts while trying to maintain their careers. Newt is left to get himself to school, prepare the family meals, and basically watch out for himself.
Naturally, Newt is concerned about his brother, but his requests to visit the hospital are unheeded. In an unsuccessful effort to cheer-up his mother, Newt dons his brother’s sports uniform hand-me-downs. His two supportive friends add a cape and mask, and Captain Nobody is born!
Much to everyone’s surprise, Newt keeps wearing the costume. Naturally his teachers are concerned, but they attribute the costume to Newt’s attempt to process his brother’s tragedy. Of course Newt, his friends, and the readers know the truth – Captain Nobody is somebody! He’s not ignored. Newt’s walking taller, with more confidence. He’s never been out of control, but now that control has a name.
Through a series of right place – wrong time events, Captain Nobody rescues a disoriented elderly man, thwarts a jewelry store robbery, and clears a highway so an airplane can make an emergency landing. However, Captain Nobody’s greatest deed is one he intentionally chooses – the rescue and redemption of a young man stuck at the top of a water tower. The young man: the football player who put Chris in the hospital.
Author Dean Pitchford is better known for his songwriting/soundtrack abilities (Fame, Footloose) but there’s no denying his talent for writing the tween novel. The pace is quick, and the prose is accessible. There are no dead spots; no second-act let-down. But amid the action, we learn with makes Newt tick. Pitchford perfectly describes the conflicting emotions of a boy who wants to be noticed, but doesn’t want to beg for attention – the introvert in a family of extroverted over-achievers. Despite the serious undertone, Captain Nobody is really an upbeat, optimistic tween read. Newt is alternately cheerful and sardonic as only a chronic wallflower can be.
My only quibble with the book is the age of Newt/Captain Nobody. He’s 10 years old, and that’s really too young for the lack of supervision provided by his parents. During his brother’s hospital stay, we get the impression that Newt is home alone most of the time, perhaps even overnight.
And unfortunately, the age of our protagonist reduces the potential audience. With a reading level of 4.7, many fourth and fifth graders (ages 9-10) will find this book too difficult. As a former library media specialist, I can tell you that a book about an elementary kid is a tough sell to a middle schooler. Older students typically don’t like to read books about “little kids.” So really, the audience for Captain Nobody consists of fourth and fifth graders with average to above-average reading skills. That’s a regrettable limitation, because the plot and emotional content is certainly appropriate for middle school students.
Newt’s two friends, JJ and Cecil keep the story moving along by encouraging Captain Nobody to seek new adventures. Some of the most comical sections involve Cecil’s use of a walkie-talkie to summon Captain Nobody, who really doesn’t want to get involved. Newt is comfortable slipping into the shadows, but he can’t step away from the responsibility that goes with the cape and mask.
And that’s really what Captain Nobody is about – finding out who you really are, and doing all that you’re capable of doing. That’s an important task for all tweens, and that’s what makes Captain Nobody a keeper. Buy copies for your elementary library collection and your upper-elementary classroom library. Recommend it to all students, but especially to those who need a little encouragement to become their own “somebody.”