First Paragraph: I don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw a man fly. I was very small; I remember that much. My arms were tightly locked around my dad’s neck. He was giving me a piggyback ride through our perfectly ordinary town center. It was a crisp and cold fall day. Our heads craned upward as we tried to name the various clouds in the sky, giving them shapes, personalities, and identities. Mom still lived with us. I didn’t know about her abilities yet.
Quick Note: I don't think this YA book quite qualifies for the big red warning I throw up when I review hardcore cannibals-eating-and-raping-everybody-Mike-Mullin-style YA, but despite being kid-friendly, The Misshapes is not middle grade. There's some language and adult themes, but if a child sat through The Dark Knight (and they should, or their parents have failed them), they should have no trouble with The Misshapes.
Do you love superheroes, Esteemed Reader? Unless this is your first time reading this blog, you know I do. Writing a superhero novel is one of the top items on my bucket list (Banneker Bones has no super powers, alas), and whatever the story, if a character has superpowers, I'm interested.
The trick in writing about characters with superpowers is the same as writing about magic or zombies or any other subject. First, invest the reader in the character, then you can put them in whatever compelling situation you choose and pages will be turned. That's what I love about The Misshapes and particularly the paragraph above, which is one of the best opening paragraphs I've ever read.
Alex Flynn first hooks us with the situation in sentence one: this is a world in which people can fly--or we'd be hearing about the time Sarah saw a man fly rather than just the first time. As a comic book junkie, I'm hooked at least enough to read to the end of the first chapter, but then Flynn sets the hook with the last sentence. Mom is apparently gone--not dead, but gone--and she also has abilities. Things just got personal. I'm interested in the world of the story and I'm now interested in our protagonist, Sarah Robertson, whose mother has left her and who may have inherited superpowers.
16-year-old Sarah Robertson does indeed have superpowers, She's pretty much teenage Storm:
I flipped the switch on the humidifier. The
plastic mechanism inside it whirred. A warm skein of moist air poured
out of the nozzle. I waved my hand through it a couple of times and
tried to focus my emotions on the jet. With a small dark thought and a
little tension in my muscles, I was able to shepherd the rising moisture
and form a small cloud. It looked like a floating pile of marshmallows.
How much fun is that? If you're like me, Esteemed Reader, you're hooked already and there's no need for you to read the rest of this review. Go ahead and buy your copy of The Misshapes. You can always come back and read this later:) And you'll be glad you did. The Misshapes is a fun book with a lot of heart and some truly interesting characters.
Sarah lives in a world where superheros and villains are an everyday thing. Rather than concocting a scheme in which everyone in the town of Doolittle Falls is bitten by a radioactive spider, Alex Flynn has a much simpler explanation:
Mom said that Heroes have been around since the
dawn of time. Throughout the ages, people have held them in high esteem
and great disdain, depending on whether they’re fighting in a war or
trying to rule a country.
Some of the national celebrities wear their
capes around town, like Freedom Man, but almost everyone else Clark
Kents it. Mom explained it like this: Everyone is born without powers,
but as they grow older, they develop. And once puberty hits, boom,
you’re a full-on one-person crime-fighting machine. Or, in some cases,
crime-causing. But until that point, you’re in limbo, with some traces
of powers to come. Some may find that they can control the elements,
like turning rocks into liquid. Others may just be able to fly, although
very few can without some assisted propulsion.
She tried to explain how superpowers happened
once. They’re the result of a small rogue chromosome that broke off from
the rest of the genes thousands of years ago. That was all well and
good, but when some virus interacted with this chromosome, it
transformed it into a source of potential superpowers. That’s how Heroes
came into existence, and that’s how they marry other Heroes and they
pass down powerful powers from kid to kid. The process of finding out
who was going to have awesome powers, the right kind of powers, was
similar to finding a prima ballerina. Prima ballerinas are discovered
when they’re young, when experts check the make of their feet and their
legs to determine whether they’ll develop into sylphs that you can throw
So there you have it. We've got a town full of superheros and you just know that sooner or later some villains are going to present themselves. There's some dark threats on the horizon that will likely follow Sarah into the sequels, assuming there will be some (don't worry-there's no cliffhanger ending, just room for more story if readers want it).
Comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable to most middle grade and young adult books written A.R. (After Rowling). I'm not about to tell you The Misshapes is basically Harry Potter with superheroes instead of wizards, nor is it the book version of Sky High. It's its own thing. Oh sure, the superheroes play a game that very much reminded me of quidditch, but more complicated and without brooms. But in some ways, Sarah Robertson is kind of the anti-Harry Potter, or Bizzaro Harry, if you will:)
Why do I say this? Well, Sarah's parents weren't killed by a super-villain. Sort of the opposite (or bizzaro-site):
I was rudely awoken by the sound of Megan’s
whiskey-tinged drawl. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t the Bane of
Innsmouth’s little daughter. Oh, and let’s not forget, the sister of
Stupor Man.” She lowered her sunglasses and glared at me. “You know no
one wants you here. Half their parents tried to kill your mom, and with
your brother drunk all the time your family doesn’t have the best rep.”
It was a rude awakening, to say the least.
That's a coincidence, you say? Could be. But then Sarah gets a letter (true, it's not delivered by an owl) from the superhero Hogwarts uninviting her to attend. She actually gets it at a superhero party and is shamed in front of the group she most wants to be part of rather than triumphing over the family that's done her wrong. Doomed to never become a proper superhero (or is she...), Sarah becomes a Misshape.
I don't know if this Harry Potter stuff really holds up, so I'll drop it. Just struck me as interesting as all.
The Misshapes is a hilarious book perfect for fans of The Tick and other humorous superhero stories. Some of the powers, such as one boy's ability to conjure back-up singers, kept me chuckling and turning pages to the end. And there's plenty of social satire and a metaphorical discussion on class--lots of those going around now that America is at peak inequality. I had a good time making my way through this book and you will too.
As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Misshapes:
Even though there are a lot of Heroes in this
town, parents are still pretty mistrusting of strangers. A town with
Heroes can draw villains out of the woodwork.
Luke yelled after us as we made our way to the
stands, “You should come to my place after the game. I mean, my parents’
place. They’re not home and …” He stopped and started again. “I’m
having an after-party. You should come.”
“Can my friends come or is this
a party of two, Luke?” said Christie.
He turned bright red. “No. I mean
yes. Of course they can.”
She smiled at him and he melted to the floor.
Not literally though. That power would be gross.
The more I looked at her, the more I realized
that even though she was a Normal, she totally had superpowers—she was
super hot, she was super rich, and she lived in this super neighborhood.
Professor Cyclopso is so creepy. He always stares at the girls with his one eye.
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.