Andrew “Drew” Bean is the most sensitive kid in middle school. Really. He has superpowered senses; his ability to hear, see, touch, taste, and smell are probably the best on the planet. He’s one of several superhero sidekicks-in-training at his middle school. The group meets daily in a secret training complex in the basement of the school, under the direction of the benevolent, mysterious teacher, Mr. Masters. In John David Anderson’s engaging and entertaining tween novel Sidekicked, Drew learns what it means to be a hero.
As a sidekick, Drew is known as The Sensationalist, but he doesn’t always feel very sensational. Sure, his ability to smell an apple pie coming out of the oven across town is impressive, but not quite as glamorous as his friends' powers; they can walk through walls, turn into granite, or shoot electricity from their fingertips. To make matters worse, the superhero selected to mentor Drew has absolutely no interest in being a superhero anymore. The Titan, former leader of the Justice Society, now spends his days on a bar stool in a beer joint on the wrong side of the tracks. With two strikes against him, how can Drew become a real superhero?
In Sidekicked, Anderson covers a lot of ground, and does it all very well. It’s not exactly an action novel, but there are certainly some suspenseful action scenes. It’s not really a romance, but that’s part of the story, too. Sidekicked is about dealing with disappointments, and finding your own way in the world. And that theme should ring true with most tween readers.
The most achingly tender scenes involve Drew’s visits with The Titan, and his efforts to be a sidekick to a disinterested superhero. Drew doesn’t beg; in fact he doesn’t say much at all. He reminds The Titan of the arrangement, and makes himself available, waiting for orders that never come. The Titan is dealing with too much emotional baggage to function. To make matters worse, Drew silently endures stories about his friends’ exploits with their willing, helpful mentors.
Several times during the story, Drew pushes the “emergency button” implanted underneath his fingernail – a direct electronic signal to The Titan. There’s never a response. Insightful readers will recognize Drew as the neglected son in a dysfunctional father-son relationship. In Sidekicked, Drew learns that in some situations we can’t depend on others. We have to rely on ourselves. The Titan gets a shot at redemption late in the story, and even later offers to make a quick amends. Drew’s response to both situations reveals maturity and growth, and that’s what character development is all about.
Despite the serious undertones, Sidekicked is an upbeat novel that’s lots of fun to read. Anderson is a talented writer and an excellent storyteller. (My guess is that we’ll get a breakout novel from him soon.) There’s just the right mix of superhero action, mystery, and middle school humor to maintain the interest of almost any reader. The book – from jacket to blurb – is presented as a superhero novel, but that’s only part of the attraction. When sharing this book with your students, make sure to mention other important elements. Readers looking for superhero action will be satisfied, and also experience a wonderful tween novel.
Sidekicked is a keeper. Buy a few copies for your middle school library, and include a copy in your classroom library as well. Be ready to hand it to students who like reading about superheroes, but don’t pigeon-hole it to that genre. Many middle school readers will enjoy this “Sensational” experience.