Seven Impossible Tri-Reviews Before Breakfast #3: Featuring Roger Sutton and Perry Moore’s Hero

h1 October 22nd, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

{Note: Please see the post below this one for today’s Robert’s Snow schedule}

Hi there. It’s post number three here in our fledgling tri-review series, in which we discuss the merits and/or pitfalls of a new title with a blogger whom we have invited to come play with us (these things are way more like book discussions than traditional reviews, as you can tell by the length of these posts). We kicked the series off with a discussion of Cat Weatherill’s Snowbone with Betsy Bird, a.k.a. Fuse #8; continued with a discussion of Gabrielle Zevin’s Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac with Jen Robinson; and are currently enjoying a discussion of Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie beginning readers with none other than MotherReader (to be posted soon) . . .

And this week we’re happy to have Roger Sutton, Horn Book editor and blogger, with us to discuss Perry Moore’s new novel, Hero. We’d like to thank Roger for joining us to discuss the new book.

{Note: Beware — Plot spoilers included below}.

Jules: Hero, the first novel by film producer, screenplay writer, and director Perry Moore and just released last month, is “the coming of age story of the world’s first gay superhero,” as the publisher (Hyperion) likes to put it. (And I have to quickly share Fuse’s thoughts on the matter in her post about Moore’s September book release party, because it made me laugh out loud: “And though I didn’t know it before I read the book, I LOVE gay teen superheroes! They’re the bestest superheroes out there”).

Northstar, one of the first gay mainstream superheroesBefore it had barely hit the shelves, a lot of the early publicity for the novel (and I know this should not factor into a review, but, hey, this is more like a discussion and less like a traditional review) . . . As I was saying, the publicity revolved around Moore’s fervent desire to right what he considers the less-than-stellar treatment of gay superheroes in mainstream comic books (such as the death of Northstar, pictured here, a mutant superhero of Marvel Comics and one of the first openly homosexual superheroes in American comic books). All kinds of Big Names (Stan Lee, who is interested in producing an adaptation of the story to the big screen, apparently; Maurice Sendak; and Lloyd Alexander) have lent their one- or two-line zippy-quick reviews to the book’s front and back covers, and you can find coverage of the book’s release and reviews in publications that range from Booklist to People magazine.

The story centers on Thom Creed, a high school basketball star whose mother has disappeared and whose father, Hal, was once one of the most beloved members of the League of Superheroes – until an unfortunate, 9/11-esque accident at Wilson Towers, a failed rescue operation that left Hal an outcast. Thom discovers that he has the power to heal the wounded, something which he keeps from his father – as well as the fact that he’s gay. After improving upon his powers to heal, he captures the attention of the League and is invited to join, eventually meeting a misfit group of other heroes – the extremely pissed-off Scarlett, who can control fire; Typhoid Larry, who can instantly spread disease by touching others; and wiser, older Ruth, a clairvoyant. As Thom struggles to keep both secrets from his father and gain the acceptance of the League (as well as, oh, help uncover a dastardly, murderous plot to kill the superheroes off), he tries to puzzle out his parents’ past and also falls in love with Goran, another athlete at his school.

Roger, first let me say: We are excited and honored that you’re tri-reviewing with us. Many thanks. Onward, then: How does this novel rate in terms of the fact that Hyperion is also marketing it as “groundbreaking”? You’ve made it clear before that you don’t get all wrapped up in trends, but you’ve also made it clear that you’ve read a lot of YA lit with gay themes and characters. So, I’m curious how it rates for you in that way? And, well . . . what did you think of the novel? Did the whole allegory — a). superheroes with secrets who struggle to reconcile their lives with their powers and b). coming-out angst -– work for you, as a reader?

Roger: If as many children’s books broke ground as say they did, we’d be looking at an awfully big pile of sand. Is Hero the first gay superhero in a children’s book? Sure, but to me this is more a case of high-concept publishing than any kind of groundbreaking. We’ve had gay-themed YA for a long time now, and it has become increasingly more sophisticated in style and relaxed in tone–David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, for example. Hero, though, is more an example of a book with a big sexy premise: proms AND vampires, bras AND broomsticks, gay AND supergay. It’s a book designed to make a retail splash.

It seems to me that the best place to rectify wrongs in comic books would be in comic books, and while I find a lot to like about Hero, it feels like a comic book (or, even more, a movie) trapped in a YA novel. The action is almost non-stop, but it’s literally action, not plot, and I wish the large number of words used to describe the chases and battle scenes had been devoted instead to setting or character. Only hero/narrator Thom is developed to any large extent; the rest feel like a supporting cast—I’m thinking Rosario Dawson for Scarlett and the late Ruth Gordon for Ruth (the character is straight out of “Harold and Maude”). That said, Thom is an appealing protagonist, wisecracking and sympathetic. I wish the book had thrown a few fewer things at him: both he and the reader have too much to juggle. The gay, um, agenda is very well handled: angsty but also funny, like when Thom cruises for superhero porn on the internet.

My question, for either or both of you depending on who feels more in touch with Kids Today, is “who is this book for”? I don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t or shouldn’t have an audience, just that I don’t know what it is. Hip little college gay guys?

Jules: (Eisha and I decided that I’ll take this momentarily, as Eisha’s working under a deadline at this very moment).

I agree that the novel, though I found it an absorbing read, seemed to have been constructed more like a screenplay. And, yes, I found Thom to be a sympathetic character, too; I liked his journey from “hope can ruin you” (which is true, to be sure) to his feeling-like-flying kiss on the final page, his hope renewed in Goran.

However, if I may voice a very specific complaint here . . . I was touched by Typhoid Larry’s sacrifice toward the novel’s close: He had always wanted to be a hero, and there he goes, leaping off the building in his perfect swan dive, splattering on the pavement into “a million globular particles of pink goo that bounced out in all directions and permeated the air everywhere,” spreading germ and general funk and knocking down everyone in the way of our heroes. And then, as if an afterthought, we find out he was put back together after Golden Boy had found each, little piece of him. Aw, man. Way to negate -– in the name of the Happy Ending, I suppose — what I thought was a rather poignant moment of the book.

And wasn’t it the Horn Book review that touched upon Moore’s talent for occasional rambling? I found that somewhat distracting at times, and it made it difficult for me to get into the book; it took me entirely too long to start caring about any of the characters. But I did eventually fall for Thom and his struggle to come to terms with who he is.

As for audience, Roger, hip little college gay guys? Sure. But I would think the high school crowd, too, especially with Moore’s occasional tendency toward one-line didactics -– “Sometimes you have to be your own best friend”; “You’re the only one who has absolute control over your own actions”; etc. Eisha, what do you think about audience?

And what did you think of the novel’s tone, Eisha and Roger? I think this is an interesting read — Christopher Butcher’s thoughts on what he calls the book’s “menacing” and all-around bleak tone (as in, is the world “really . . . that dark for queer and questioning youth”? For the record, he makes it clear he was a gay teenager once upon a time), though he thought the novel was well-written.

eisha: The audience question is tricky. I read a review of “Brokeback Mountain” once that predicted its true fan base would turn out to be women -– it’s a love story, after all. I think that might happen with Hero as well. I mean, sure, I think the “hip little college gay guys” -– not to mention the hip little high school gay guys — will love it. But as for the rest of the population… Based on what I’ve seen in my public library days, not too many straight teenage guys seem to be comfortable reading about a gay male relationship, so that rules out a lot of the comic crowd. (The Bermudez Triangle, on the other hand… oh yeah, they’ll read that.) Straight girls generally seem to be more open to reading about romantic relationships of any kind. And I really felt like the relationship side of this story trumped the superhero one. Thom’s developing sexuality and his relationship with Goran were much more fully realized for me than the frequent descriptions of superhero school and battle scenes. I never questioned why Thom hooked up with Simon, or doubted the chemistry between Thom and Goran. But I got a little lost over the final battle, and I still don’t understand why Major Might had to go up with the rocket at the end.

It’s funny, Jules, that you should mention the Typhoid Larry scene. I also felt cheated by his return, not just in terms of storytelling and ruining a poignant moment, but also because SERIOUSLY?? THOM CAN BRING PEOPLE BACK TO LIFE AFTER THEY’VE EXPLODED??? Does that mean no one ever has to die again, ‘cause Thom can fix it??? Yeah, that bit kind of stretched my credibility past the point of no return.

I don’t feel qualified to speak to the “darkness” of the tone and how it applies to the actual gay teen experience. It certainly was dark, and the world of the novel was extremely intolerant of Thom. Roger, what did you think? Was it too much? (And good call on the Ruth Gordon casting, by the way.)

Roger: Wow, I didn’t think it was dark at all. Sure, the world was more like Batman’s than Superman’s, but Thom’s goodness—and his gayness—seemed to me like bright spots in the bleakness. It’s true that he got a lot of grief for being gay but even now, you do. It’s been a long time since I was a little high school gay guy, but had I been brave enough to read this book then I would have felt acknowledged, not depressed. When you find a book that speaks truthfully to the secrets in your life you feel relieved: it’s not just me who feels this way. God knows it’s a lot easier to be gay now than it was forty years ago but I think it’s still tough for most kids at the beginning. Tough enough that checking out “a gay book” from the library or buying it at a bookstore takes a lot of guts. Not just because most teens, gay or straight, are painfully self-conscious, but because to read such a book makes you confront the truth about yourself. I would have treated this book like it came wrapped in an electric fence and not gone anywhere near it, even though I would have been dying to read it. I remember reading Sandra Scoppetone’s Trying Hard to Hear You (one of the first YAs with gay characters) in college—and I still hid it under my bed, both because it was gay and because it was “for kids.”

I wonder if publishers and librarians have given up on the adult book for young adults. Unlike Trying Hard to Hear You and other problem novels of the 1970s, Hero is truly a high school book—it’s too sophisticated for the middle-school-girl audience that used to be the primary target for the YA novel. I hammer on this theme over and over, but I believe high school readers prefer to choose their books from the free-range world of adult books, not from a selection codified “for teens.” I was reading on editor Cheryl Klein’s blog {at this post} about how the word “youngster” in a children’s book is the dead giveaway of an author writing for children, reminding kids that they’re kids. Which they hate. And a teenager, especially, wants the autonomy of being able to engage with a book as an equal. Labelling a book as being “for kids your age” takes away from that, and reduces the accomplishment of finding a book for yourself, by yourself.

Jules: As it turns out, I hosted a session at last weekend’s Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tennessee, entitled “Coming of Age Outside the Box: Teen Novels on Identity, Gender and Sexuality” with Perry Moore, Alex Sanchez, and Ellen Wittlinger. Eisha, they actually had a discussion about how a lot of their readers are straight teen girls, those for whom it is “safe” – in that terribly self-conscious, as Roger pointed out, segment of the population called teens – to talk up a novel about homosexuality.

Roger, I don’t make a habit of following the detailed ins and outs of the publishing world, but as a children’s librarian who blogs about children’s and YA lit, yes, I’d say that there isn’t a great deal of promotion out there for adult books for young adults. If I had a dime for every time this past weekend (at the aforementioned Festival) I heard a children’s book author say that he or she set out to write for adults and then was a bit dismayed to be nudged toward the children’s or YA market, I’d be the world’s richest librarian. But Perry Moore, when that question came up, pointed out that his book’s dedication is “for everyone.” Making note of the fact that Sendak often says he never sets out to write for children (Moore and Hunter Hill are currently filming a documentary on Sendak – SQUEE!), he said that, essentially, he wrote with no particular audience in mind. Rather, I don’t think he wrote with “teens” in mind. How the book came to be published in the “YA” market must have been an editor’s decision (or a publicist’s? I don’t know how those things typically work).

I hear what you’re saying about high school readers preferring to choose their books from the world of adult books. I haven’t been a librarian-around-teens in three-and-a-half years, though. Eisha, did you find this to be the case at your library in Cambridge?

For the record, I wanted to ask Perry last weekend why he chose to tell this story in novel form and not via a comic book, but, well . . . I wanted to be a gracious facilitator and not hog the questions — and it turns out the small crowd there had many questions for all three distinguished authors (and then when I was reminded that he’s making a documentary on Sendak, I nearly passed out and had to quickly ask him about that in the brief amount of time I had after hosting the session and before they signed books for eager fans. I’m a wee bit of a Sendak fan).

And here’s a final question (from me anyway) for you two: Will you read the next installment in the Thom saga? Moore made it clear last weekend that he has several more books lined up in his mind (he said he has “big plans” for Typhoid Larry when I either boldly or stupidly asked him why the hell he brought him back to life). Roger, will you read it because you want to (and not because you perhaps have to review it for the Horn Book)? Eisha? I think I will. We all seem to agree we would have liked less action and more plot, as Roger put it, but there was enough warmth and humor and social commentary in the book to keep me hooked. And I’m invested in these characters and interested in seeing what Moore does with this storyline.

eisha: As far as adult books being marketed/suggested for teens, yes, I do think that still happens. They’re assigned a lot of adult novels/memoirs in school, and I can think of a few recent adult titles that I saw a lot of teens asking for: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Push by Sapphire, Lucky and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, just to name a few. I think what we have to remember is that we three are obviously voracious readers, and always have been. It was natural for me as a teen to skip right past all the Paul Zindel and Robert Cormier novels and jump straight into J.D. Salinger. But that’s not the case for everyone. Roger, I totally take your point about a lot of teens wanting to have the full spectrum of literature to choose from, and of course they should, and do. But I think having a space in a library or bookstore of books that feature teenage protagonists and teen interests, at a variety of reading difficulty levels, is a very good thing for a lot of young readers. You’re right, though – we need to make sure they know that they aren’t limited to that one area, and keep stuff like the Alex Awards in mind when we’re booktalking and playing readers’ advisor to teens.

Will I read Hero 2: the Golden Years? Oh yeah. I loved the concept, and I’m curious to see what happens between Thom and the League – not to mention Thom and Goran. I do hope Perry Moore and his editors focus on improving the quality of the writing and plotting, though. This one really only needed a little tweaking here and there to be a great action/romance novel. I’d totally recommend it to anyone who likes their superhero action stories with a heavy dose of romance.

How about you, Roger?

Roger: What makes me want a sequel are the characters, where I’ve become invested enough in them to want to know more. I liked Thom but feel he was swamped by the action, so I didn’t get to know him enough to find myself thinking about him, wondering what he’s up to now or what else might happen to him. So I would probably give it a pass. (I’m speaking here as a recreational reader, by the way, not making any predictions about what the Horn Book might or might not do.) Books these days are too readily becoming franchises, he said, like the cranky old man that he is. But I do think Moore is a talented writer and I’d like to see what else he can do.

Jules: I suppose we can all agree that we certainly haven’t read another novel like it this year — and that two out of three of us will read Hero 2: I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Thanks, Cranky Old Man (hey, can I be that for Halloween this year?), for joining us in this conversation. It’s fun to delve deep into a book like this — and even better when another thoughtful reader joins us.

And, again, our next tri-review will be taking a closer look at Mo Willems’ new beginning reader Elephant & Piggie books. You will be invited to that party (okay, that was a lame play on one of the titles in the series) soon, as we’re currently wrapping up that tri-review with, arguably, the kidlitosphere’s hugest Mo fan, MotherReader. So, come read — if you’re so inclined — and join in the conversation about the merits and/or pitfalls of those books (pitfalls? There are any?).

Until then . . .

6 comments to “Seven Impossible Tri-Reviews Before Breakfast #3: Featuring Roger Sutton and Perry Moore’s Hero

  1. […] Check it out! While looking through the blogosphere we stumbled on an interesting post today.Here’s a quick excerpt{Note: Please see the post below this one for today’s Robert’s Snow schedule}. Hi there. It’s post number three here in our fledgling tri-review series, in which we discuss the merits and/or pitfalls of a new title with a blogger whom … […]

  2. Holy Hanna Batman this was a fascinating conversation. I am grateful.

    Sometimes I think what we need to do is get more adults reading teen fiction. If the crossover would happen a lot in both directions it would attract more readers in both directions. I learn SO MUCH from teen fiction.

  3. Thank you so much for this amazing review — this has been a fabulous “meeting of the minds.” Lovely!

  4. Another great review! A couple of random reactions:
    I was also surprised upon reading Typhoid Larry was still alive. But I love his name so much that I’m willing to overlook a lot just to keep reading it. Seriously.

    And ditto the Major Might confusion. I had to read the relevant sections a couple of times before I got it. Or think I got it, which is basically that he’s nuts. Right?

    I wasn’t bothered by the plot/action to character development ratio. I thought it was a good blend of the two, and if the secondary characters weren’t fully developed, Thom more than made up for it. (Between everything that happens to Thom–a lot, but superheroes have very busy and exciting lives, no?–and Ruth’s backstory, I don’t think I could handle anymore in one book.) And I felt all the action did serve a purpose in establishing the characters, and furthering the character development and the relationships between characters.

    For the record, I wanted to ask Perry last weekend why he chose to tell this story in novel form and not via a comic book, but, well . . .

    *shameless plug* I ask this question in my WBBT interview with Perry.

  5. […] [review] Hero (seven impossible things before breakfast) “Books these days are too readily becoming franchises, he said, like the cranky old man that he is.” AMEN, ROGER. AMEN. The rest of this entry is a tri-review of Hero and pretty interesting, even though they barely touch on what’s under the surface. (tags: books reviews hero perry.moore) […]

  6. […] Hero, by Perry Moore (seven impossible things before breakfast) (tags: (author:perry.moore) [title:hero] superheroes special.powers boys.kissing sexuality coming.out first.kiss […]

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