Jun 24 2013

A Writer’s Review of Sidekicked

Published by at 4:58 am under Book Review,Writing Articles

Sidekicked is a superhero novel about a sidekick who’s got just enough superpowers to get everybody killed and the various forces trying to screw him (e.g. a possibly nefarious superhero/spymaster, a squad of supervillains hell-bent on revenge, and whoever named him “The Sensationalist”). Here’s what writers can learn from it and how it could improve your writing.


The team dynamic was unusually believable and three-dimensional. In particular, the conflicts between the sidekicks and their sort-of-spymaster boss were more satisfying because both sides of the conflict were somewhat likable and sympathetic. Instead of just having the kids fight with Hardass Drill Instructors, for example, the spymaster instead grilled them during debriefings about various decisions and mistakes. It raised the stakes for their superheroics (e.g. not noticing that someone reeks of mind-control chemicals and/or explosives could make for a really bad day).


–I love the idea of a team leader bringing in an outside superhero because he thinks the team is lacking in some way. It’s a very promising way to create a dramatic conflict between the team and the new guy (and perhaps between the team and the leader). It also helps develop the character more quickly than just randomly adding someone because the team wanted an extra person.


The characterization was not very groundbreaking… For example, the main character is generally a stereotypically ordinary teen who gets relatively few opportunities to make decisions that any other young superhero wouldn’t have made in the same place. Generally, I’d recommend giving your characters more opportunities to stand out from the crowd because it’ll help make them more memorable. For example, this main character gets a kickass scene with a cop car and is unusually gutsy when confronting a deadbeat hero. Both are a great start.


The main character’s voice/dialogue is interesting enough that I think most readers can let his personality slide. E.g. “[If my identity got leaked] I’d have to tell my parents everything… even about mixing nitroglycerin in the bathroom sink.”

 “At least ten weeks [until my arm heals up],” Mike said… “I asked [our boss] if we could just chop it off and get me one of those cybernetics jobs like Cryos has?”…

Cryos has this killer cybernetic arm… It was pretty awesome. If Mike got one of those, I’d catapult myself down the stairs until my own arm broke off.


–The story was usually most interesting when the superheroes were improvising. For example, mixing nitroglycerin in your parents’ sink is far more memorable than mixing it up in a secret lab that is actually suited for mixing nitroglycerin. Hot-wiring a police cruiser is more interesting than having a Batmobile, especially given that the “driver” can’t actually drive and the “hot-wirer” is an electrical superhero with explosively imprecise powers.


–I can’t speak for the target audience (grades 3-7), but I felt like the non-superheroics elements could have been incorporated in a more interesting and coherent way. For example, right after a terrifying supervillain breaks his gang out of prison, I would not recommend cutting to an uneventful flashback of a middle school romance. I’d recommend instead incorporating that sort of information into scenes which somehow develop the central plot moving forward, so that it feels more coherent with the hunt for the supervillain. For example, see how X-Men: First Class used a romance between Mystique and Beast to advance a critical plot arc about mutant self-acceptance or how the romance between Bob and Helen in The Incredibles influences their major decisions.


Refreshingly non-stupid for a work aimed at this target audience. I’d feel a lot more comfortable using Sidekicked than Captain Underpants in a (say) 4th grade classroom.


I think the book skews considerably older than the target audience. If the author had removed all of the lines where the characters’ age or grade were mentioned, I would have guessed the main characters was 16-18. It doesn’t have any of the focuses I’d associate most with tween audiences (e.g. an emphasis on fitting in and/or being socially acceptable, academic angst like too much homework or a nasty teacher, and low-stakes conflicts with siblings or parents).


The book has fun with superhero tropes without getting too ridiculous. For example, although a few of the side-villains were a bit wacky, it never felt at all like the work was either aimed at idiots or written by someone who sort of hated superhero stories. For example, in introducing a new side-villain, the main character helpfully notes that “I have no idea what his deal is, though anyone who dresses up like a bumblebee and carries around a rocket launcher is obviously several eggs short of a carton.” In comparison, if a superhero’s facing off against (say) Sticky Glue Man, the villain probably feels so pathetic that 1) there’s no danger, 2) it doesn’t matter whether the hero wins, and 3) both the heroes and the villain lose the reader’s attention.


The dweeb vs. jock conflict could be fresher. Fortunately, it’s a pretty minor plot arc, and the target audience probably isn’t old enough to have seen hundreds of these stories yet.


I like that the character’s superhero name only comes up a few times, especially given that the name is a bit hard to use in conversation (“The Sensationalist”). The name isn’t a huge deal, so I wouldn’t recommend spending hours on this when you’re writing your own manuscripts, but here I would have recommended something a bit shorter, perhaps Keen or Sharply.


CHICAGOANS DO NOT USE THE PHRASE “WICKED COOL.” For your handy reference, here are some phrases you’ll hear in Chicago but not Boston:

On the plus side, Kid Colt sounded a lot more believable (to this Chicago-area layman with very little exposure to Western or Southern accents).





Revealing that the villain is a female is a HUGE giveaway in a story where there are so few superpowered ladies. If you’re going for a satisfying reveal, I’d recommend making sure that there are more possible suspects for readers to get stuck on. (Early on, I liked the red herring with the spymaster, though).


5 responses so far

5 Responses to “A Writer’s Review of Sidekicked”

  1. Elecon 27 Jun 2013 at 1:17 am

    Sounds like a good read. Would you recommend it to a slightly older target audience?

  2. B. McKenzieon 27 Jun 2013 at 7:08 am

    “Would you recommend it to a slightly older target audience?” Yes. While the main character tells us he’s a middle-school student (12 years old, I think), it feels a lot more like we’re reading about a high schooler. Aside from the romance, there wasn’t anything kiddy here.

    If the author Find-Replaced “middle school” with “high school” and “12 years old” with “18 years old,” I think the only two plot elements which would feel out of place would be the romance (probably too rated-G for high school readers) and the scene where the main character steals a police cruiser (which would have been less funny if he had actually known how to drive).

    My uninformed speculation is that the author originally wrote the book for an older audience and adapted it for a younger audience somewhat late in the process.

  3. ByTheFarmsteadon 27 Jul 2013 at 2:51 am

    Eighth grade is still middle school and about 14 years old; so it’s more plausible for these plot elements listed. Eighteen is adult.

  4. B. McKenzieon 27 Jul 2013 at 12:20 pm

    I think the character is identified as a 12 year old. But even if he were 14, he’d still be exceptionally mature for a character supposedly of ordinary intelligence. He mixes his own nitroglycerin, for example.

  5. Cat of Darknesson 14 Dec 2013 at 3:48 pm

    It depends on where you live. 8th grade can be middle school or junior high, wherever you live.

    -Cat of Darkness

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