“Evan Quick, Hero’s Log, May the 25th… and darn it – I just can’t do this. I’m never going to be a Mask. Get over it Evan.”
Evan Quick has spent his whole life dreaming of becoming a hero. Every morning he wakes up and runs through a checklist of test to see if he’s developed powers over night, and every day it is the same thing – nothing. No flying, no super strength, no heat rays or cold beams. No invulnerability – that always hurt to check – no telepathy, no magic. Not even the ability to light a light bulb without flipping a switch. And now, he’s finally ready to give up.
But then, the class field trip to the Mask Museum is interrupted by a super villain attack, and Evan somehow manages to survive a death ray. Even better, Evan’s favorite Mask, Captain Commanding, shows up to save them all — and when things go very wrong, it’s Evan who finds the strength to come to Captain Commanding’s rescue.
Yet the hero’s reception Evan is expecting never happens. Before he even gets the chance to say hello, Evan is bundled away to The Academy, an institution derisively called The School for Sidekicks by its students. Forced to take classes like Banter Basics and Combat with Dinnerware, while being assigned as an ‘apprentice’ to Foxman – a Mask widely considered a has-been — Evan starts to worry that he’ll never be able to save the day…
Tell us about one of your characters and their superpowers.
I don’t want to give too much away about the story, so I’ll talk a little bit about one of my favorite minor characters, Blurshift. Blurshift is a shape-changer with no default identity who is constantly and slowly shifting through a series of human forms of varying gender and ethnicity. At the point in the story where School for Sidekicks is set, Blurshift is only changing into things roughly the size and shape of a human being, though their powers may grow over time.
One of things I loved about writing Blurshift is that it forced me to constantly think about identity and how who we are shifts and changes with time, especially as we’re growing up. Having a character who really made me think outside of the normal boxes of identity was both a delight and a challenge.
Did any superheroes or comic book characters inspire your writing?
Yes and no. There aren’t a lot of direct lines from stuff I’ve read to School for Sidekicks, but I’ve always been a huge fan of comic books and of superheroes in general.
My biggest influences are probably from the ’80s Marvel Universe in the shape of Chris Claremont’s X-Men run, and some of the other titles that are contemporary with it. Especially Ghost Rider, Powerman/Ironfist, New Mutants, Daredevil, Thor, She Hulk, and the Avengers.
I’m also a huge fan of the older X-Men that were being reprinted around then, 70s Batman, Legion of Superheroes, the Invaders, and the Defenders. Some of the more obscure titles that I really enjoyed were the Micronauts, Rom Space Knight, Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew (which was a fabulous hero parody) and Dazzler-I’ve still got my copy of the first dozen issues or so.
In terms of more modern comic work, I discovered Gail Simone’s Birds of Prey via finding them on a shelf in Neil Gaiman’s basement, and I absolutely adore her work there and on Batgirl. It was as much a revelation of what you can do with comics and heroes as Neil’s Sandman, or Mike Grell’s Longbow Hunters, or Watchmen.
I also have to mention the George R. R. Martin-edited Wildcards series of shared world anthologies, which showed me a whole different way to think about and tell superhero stories.
Favorite writing treat?
Well, I try to avoid associating food or drink with writing. Writing is such a sedentary profession to start with that it can be hard to stay in shape. Which is also why I’m a bit of an exercise nut. So, I’m going to go with snowshoeing. A couple of years back I had to get a novel done in about 4 months, and one of the things I did to give myself incentive was to say that as soon as I got my word count done for the day, I could borrow my friend Neil’s dogs and go for a trek in the woods. Getting out into the deep snow and the cold and the bright hard winter sun to do something physical is a great treat for me.
If you had a must read list for middle-grade children what would be on it?
In the interest of brevity, I’ll just list a baker’s dozen in no particular order.
The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe-C.S. Lewis. This was one of the first science fiction and fantasy novels I ever owned-my mom and grandmother got me the Chronicles of Narnia boxed set and I literally read this book to pieces.
Winnie the Pooh-A.A. Milne. WINNIE THE POOH, what more do you need to say?
The Wind in the Willows-Kenneth Grahame. Love, love, love this book, it’s pure joy to read.
The Graveyard Book-Neil Gaiman. This is one of the best modern books for the middle grade reader-I absolutely adore it.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone-J.K. Rowling. I first picked up a copy of this and the second book as a boxed set-the others weren’t out yet-in Scotland on my honeymoon, and simply fell in love with it.
Miss Bianca-Margery Sharp. Miss Bianca, more broadly known to most of the world as half of The Rescuers, was one of my first female heroes, brilliant, unbelievably brave, and simply perfect.
Charlotte’s Web-E. B. White. Another great classic that doesn’t need me to tell anyone why it’s magnificent.
Basil Of Baker Street-Eve Titus. The Basil of Baker street books were one of my great delights as a child-I read them before the Great Mouse Detective movie came out, and I maintain that the books are much better.
Beastmaster-Andre Norton. This book and its sequel Lord of Thunder are books that have some issues that grow more apparent with time, but they are a beloved part of my childhood, and something I do return to every few years. I just reread them last week, in fact.
The Hobbit-J.R.R. Tolkien. My earliest memories include Gandalf and Bilbo and thirteen dwarves of Thorin’s company. I can’t tell you how many times I begged my mom or grandmother to read them to me, and one of my great delights once I learned to read myself was that I could visit the Shire as often as I wanted to.
The Riddle Master of Hed-Patricia McKillip. I don’t know if these really count as middle grade-they were sold as juveniles when I was that age-but I absolutely loved Morgon of Hed and Raederle at 13, and like so many other book on this list I come back to them again and again.
A Nose for Trouble-Jim Kjelgaard. I stumbled on Kjelgaard’s books in my school library and devoured them. I must have read A Nose For Trouble a dozen times between the ages of 10 and 14, and I think it’s terribly sad that it’s very hard to find now.
Wee Free Men-Terry Pratchett. Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books are brilliant and fun and funny, and everyone should read them regardless of age.
What advice would you give to your middle-school readers?
I was raised and educated by hippies. So, both at home and at school I was constantly getting the message that I could do anything I set my mind to, and that I should be exploring everything that interested me to find something I could really love and set my life’s course by that star. I can’t think of better advice to a young reader than to explore the world, find something you can love doing, and go for it.
KELLY McCULLOUGH is the author of the adult fantasy series Webmage and Assassin’s Blade. School for Sidekicks is his first novel for young readers. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats, all of whom he adores.more info at http://www.kellymccullough.com
Do you have a question for our guest author? Kelly McCullough will be on Reddit doing an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) this Thursday August 6th at 3:00 PM Eastern Time. He’ll be answering questions about School for Sidekicks, all past works, being a writer, his cats, and much more. You can submit your questions by going to http://www.reddit.com/r/iama at the scheduled start time.
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