Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Creating (Super) Powerful Characters for Kids, a guest post by Shawn Peters

Has anyone ever asked you the question, “If you could have one superpower… what would it be?”

I’ve had the conversation many times in my life, and not just because I wrote a middle grade superhero adventure called THE UNFORGETTABLE LOGAN FOSTER. No, this is something I’ve hashed out with friends growing up, college pals and coworkers. The reason why is because a person’s answer usually says something about them.

People who wish they could fly might be thrill seekers to would love to zoom over the clouds (or at least avoid the security line at airports.) Folks who wish for mental powers are often those who value deep thought and a cerebral point of view. And people who choose invisibility might tend to be a hint shy, with no need for the spotlight.

In short, imagining superpowers is a way of expressing who we are, or at very lease, who we’d like to be.

The creators of many of your favorite superheroes and supervillains have known this for a hundred years, and that’s why they so often have aligned their characters’ powers with their personalities and priorities.

Peter Parker’s webs let him “hang out” in his community, literally attached to the buildings in his area, which makes him the “friendly neighborhood Spiderman.”

Wonder Woman may be strong and fast, but it’s her lasso that forces people to speak honestly, even if they don’t want to. This is a golden symbole of her core belief in the strength of the truth.  

Tony Stark was a famously distant genius and billionaire long before he put on a suit of high-tech armor as Iron Man.

Magneto may be able to draw any metal toward him, but what makes him truly special is the way he draws rebellious mutants to his cause. He is a magnetic figure, even when he isn’t using his x-factor.

None of this is by accident. Writers who are creating superhuman characters know that these powers aren’t just a chance to create action and suspense. They’re an avenue for reinforcing their characters’ truest traits in the minds of young readers.

That’s why when I was developing the superhuman foster parents in my debut, long before I decided their superpowers or superhero names, I first thought about who they were and how my main character — 12 year old, Logan—would see them.

Margie, the foster mother, is Logan’s defender; she’s strong, disciplined and maternally protective of Logan. So, the idea of her having a layer of hidden, impervious metal in her skin that makes her turn completely silver, head-to-toe, in times of crisis just fits who she is. And because she’s the one that makes an effort to understand Logan’s mindset, her ability to speak telepathically also bolsters her personality traits in the narrative.

Gil, Logan’s foster father, is very different. He isn’t confident or focused when in non-hero situations, dealing with a stutter in his speaking cadence. And although he is highly technical, he’s got a penchant for puns. This all led me to decide that he needed to be a lightning-fast hero—quick with the wit and the way he moves–  whose molecules are only loosely held together by his will. It allows him to react in a flash while also having a hard time “holding it together” at times. His challenge as a hero and as a parent is to be present, despite that struggle for focus.

Even when I was decided who would be the first villain on the scene, I immediately reached for this kind of metaphorical super boost. Seismyxer causes intense earthquakes everywhere he goes. Who better to be the symbol of instability for Logan when his whole world is being literally and metaphorically shaken as he discovers that superheroes are real?

Then there’s the true BBEG – Big Bad Evil Gal in gamer terms—of the book, Necros. She takes the life of anyone or anything she touches. Now that’s a nasty superpower, but it’s also fitting because just as Logan is starting to envision the possibility of being part of a family and having real friends, she threatens to take that life away.

Now, does all of this mean that every superhero’s power has to be a not-so-thinly-veiled metaphor for how the author wants you to see them? Of course not. Reading too much into Reid Richards’ (aka “Mr. Fantastic”) rubber body is truly a “stretch.” But the fact is, for authors, every element of a character’s appearance, voice, perspective, and style is an opportunity to tell the reader exactly who they are. Why would we ever pass that up a chance to unmask key elements of heroes and villains while using their powers?

So, whether you’re reader enjoying a comic book or novel, or a writer looking to strengthen a story, don’t take superpowers for granted. Each one, if done right, might just have a secret identity… that tells you even more about the identity of each character.

Meet the author

 Photo credit Amy Schupler Veaner

Shawn Peters is a husband and a father of two living in Metrowest Massachusetts who has written a little bit about a lot of things in a lot of places. His career includes ads for for massive brands, fantasy sports articles for ESPN, TV scripts for makeover shows and police chases, and even essays about domestic date-nights that ran on the back page of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. On January 18th, his debut MG superhero adventure novel, “The Unforgettable Logan Foster”  will be published  by Harper Collins Childrens.

Website: www.ShawnPetersWrites.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ShawnTweeters
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/57698605-the-unforgettable-logan-foster-1
Launch Event: https://www.anunlikelystory.com/peters
Signed First Edition Link: https://aesopsfable.com/products/the-unforgettable-logan-foster-1

About The Unforgettable Logan Foster

Packed with superheroes, supervillains, and epic showdowns between good and evil, TheUnforgettable Logan Foster from debut author Shawn Peter shows that sometimes being a hero is just about being yourself.

Logan Foster has pretty much given up on the idea of ever being adopted. It could have something to with his awkward manner, his photographic memory, or his affection for reciting curious facts, but whatever the cause, Logan and his “PP’s” (prospective parents) have never clicked

Then everything changes when Gil and Margie arrive. Although they aren’t exactly perfect themselves—Gil has the punniest sense of humor and Margie’s cooking would have anyone running for the hills—they genuinely seem to care.

But it doesn’t take Logan long to notice some very odd things about them. They are out at all hours, they never seem to eat, and there’s a part of the house that is protected by some pretty elaborate security.

No matter what Logan could have imagined, nothing prepared him for the truth: His PP’s are actually superheroes, and they’re being hunted down by dastardly forces. Logan’s found himself caught in the middle in a massive battle and the very fate of the world may hang in the balance. Will Logan be able to find a way to save the day and his new family? 

ISBN-13: 9780063047679
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/18/2022
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Making the Impossible Possible, a guest post by Ruth Freeman

A story about Superheroes? Really? I have to confess I know almost nothing about superheroes, or at least I didn’t before starting to write HOW TO SAVE A SUPERHERO. But this is how it happened.

A story idea for me begins with a little seed blowing in and getting stuck. Then another seed blows in, and another, and sometimes, if I’m lucky, they start growing together into a story. The first seed was this: after I finished writing my earlier middle-grade novel, ONE GOOD THING ABOUT AMERICA, about a Congolese girl’s first year in an American elementary school, I wondered what was something all kids know about no matter where they’re from? I was teaching English Language Learners who came from all over the world, but one thing they had in common was superheroes! They might have lived in the U.S. their entire lives or have just arrived from another country, but everyone seemed to know about Superman, Spiderman and Batman. In fact, they knew way more than I did.

The second little seed came from the trips I made to visit my parents at their retirement home in Pennsylvania. It was like a fancy hotel or maybe a cruise ship, one with restaurants, a hair salon, gift shop, pool, library, even a bank. There was a studio for those who liked to paint, a woodworking shop for those who worked with wood, and a room of miniature trains for those who loved trains.  Residents never needed to leave the place if they didn’t want to. It was an amazing, complete world for older people and, as you might imagine, there were all kinds of interesting people who lived there. So…

“What if”…that’s the question that starts a story idea moving for me. What if a resident of a retirement home was actually a real…no, I mean, a REAL superhero? Impossible? Ah, that’s the great thing about writing a story: anything is possible! Maybe an old guy (Mr. Norris) doesn’t want anyone to know he’s a superhero. Maybe he wants to keep his identity hidden. On the other hand, of course he could just have dementia and not be a superhero at all. We don’t find out until the very end which it is.

The last little seed came as I made up Mr. Norris, the newest and grumpiest resident of the Happy Valley Village retirement community. The more I described him and wrote down what he said, the more I could hear my uncle Mickey’s voice. Mickey was charming, funny and smart. He was also prickly, opinionated and complained a lot. He wore old clothes, smoked a pipe, never threw anything away, and lived by himself on an island in Maine for more than 50 years. He’s gone now but he would surely roll his eyes and laugh if he knew he was the inspiration for Mr. Norris.

Addie, the eleven-year old main character, knows without a doubt that it would be impossible for Mr. Norris to be a real superhero, even though her friends Dickson and Marwa try to convince her otherwise. It was fun to write about the possibility of a real superhero, because after all, superheroes have their human sides too, right? Wouldn’t they get tired of helping people? Of being good all the time? Wouldn’t they be afraid of making a mistake while everyone was watching?

As fun as the superhero part was to write, the real story in my mind is the transformation of Mr. Norris and Addie. Even though he is old and she is young, they’ve both suffered pain and loss in their lives. They don’t trust other people. They expect the worst. But as their friendship grows, they begin to open up again. The impossible becomes possible again. They make friends at the retirement community who end up helping them when some crazy scientists come to kidnap Mr. Norris. By the end of the story, at a wild Halloween party, Addie and Mr. Norris have become true friends who are willing to risk everything to save each other. 

I’ve always been drawn to stories where characters find themselves in impossible situations (as they are in so many stories). Think of being lost in the woods with only a hatchet (Gary Paulsen) or the impossible situations Harry Potter finds himself in, or being homeless in THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE (Kimberly Brubaker Bradley). It’s in those dark and impossible situations that stories miraculously twist and turn until a pathway appears through to the possible.

Exciting? Heart-stopping? Emotional? Yes, absolutely. The stories that plunge us into impossible situations are all of these things, that’s why we love them. They also show us the way in our own lives. When things seem impossible in real life, it’s usually not superpowers that save the day, it’s human kindness, a brave stranger going out of their way, or something as simple as a caring, friendly smile that begin to make things possible again.

Meet the author

Ruth Freeman is the author of One Good Thing About America, which received a Golden Kite Honor Award and was called a “touching novel” by School Library Journal. Ruth grew up in rural Pennsylvania but now lives in Maine where she teaches English language learners in an elementary school.

About How to Save a Superhero

Ten-year-old Addie knows that Superheroes aren’t real, and that they certainly don’t hide out in retirement communities, but she may just have to change her mind.

Addie and her mom never stay in one place too long. They’ve been up and down and all around the country. When her mom, Tish, gets a new job at Happy Valley Village Retirement Community in Pennsylvania, Addie believes they’ll be on the road again in a month. But this time, something is different—make that, someone. Mr. Norris, a grumpy resident of Happy Valley and. . .a former superhero? 

Well, that’s what Marwa, whose mom also works at Happy Valley, would try and have Addie believe. Addie and her friend Dickson know better even if there are things they can’t explain. Like the time Mr. Norris was about to get hit by a car and was suddenly on the other side of the road or the way his stare seems to take root in Addie’s stomach. 

When a man starts prowling the Happy Valley grounds, claiming to be the great-nephew of a resident, Addie, Marwa, and Dickson soon stumble into a grand conspiracy involving the Manhattan Project, a shady weapons company, and the fate of the human race, in this smart, funny middle grade novel.

ISBN-13: 9780823447626
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 10/19/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

#SJYALit: The X-Men and the social justice of diverse brains (Or, Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not a hero), a guest post by Rachel Gold

sjyalitWhen I was twelve and in my fifth year of getting bullied at school, I discovered a place where people could go to learn to use their powers for good, to band together against prejudice, and to save the world: Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

I had to spend part of my days in a world that increasingly hated me for being impulsive, smart, unruly, genderfluid and queer. But the rest of the time I had superpowered allies who struggled like I did and still managed to save the world.

In Marvel’s universe, many superpowers come from mutations in the human genome. And humanity is not sure how it feels about mutants — there’s a lot of envy, fear, and hatred.

Kitty Pryde’s acceptance to the School for Gifted Youngster’s wasn’t the easiest, but she learned early on that mutants have to help each other out! From Uncanny X-Men #129, published in Jan. 1980.

Kitty Pryde’s acceptance to the School for Gifted Youngster’s wasn’t the easiest, but she learned early on that mutants have to help each other out! From Uncanny X-Men #129, published in Jan. 1980.

The mutant superhero mindset remains one of the best I’ve found for talking about neurodiverse brains, queerness and gender diversity. The concept of neurodiversity comes from the movement to see brains on the autism spectrum (ASD) as a diverse way of thinking rather than a disorder. In addition to ASD, neurodiversity has been applied to ADD/ADHD and other diverse brain styles.

Too often the conversations around ADHD and ASD seem to be about brokenness and to push people to focus on what they can’t do. Sadly this is also still the case about queer/trans kids in too many parts of the world.

About twenty years ago, I learned that I have an ADHD brain and suddenly a lot of my early years made much more sense. I’ve been lucky to spend a lot more time in the superhero mindset than the broken/disorder mindset. My brain is more creative than 99% of the brains around me. And yes, maxing a brain for that kind of creativity has downsides too. Just like superpowers.

A powerful mindset

In the broken/disorder model, I spend way too much time trying to fix my weaknesses. I push myself to do things I’m bad at. But in the superhero model, I find allies to help with my weak spots and I train hard at what I’m best at. The world doesn’t need me to become adequate at doing paperwork — the world needs me to write books and solve problems is new ways.

The same is true of you. You don’t need to be good at 95% of the things you currently suck at. (As an adult, I have never needed to know how to make a bed. How to make appropriate eye contact, yes, that’s useful.) But the world needs you to excel with your particular gifts.

The superhero mindset doesn’t make life easy, but it makes it hopeful and gives us a clear path to success. It gives us the courage and impetus to keep going. It shows us that some powers are hard to control and we have work to do. In the X-Men, Cyclops can shoot lasers out of his eyes, but he can’t stop doing this and has to wear a special visor that controls his powers. Rogue can steal powers and memories with a touch and has to keep most of her skin covered all the time. The younger team, the New Mutants, all struggled with learning to control their powers.

Our mindset about our differences can empower us or cut us down. One of the key elements of social justice is human dignity. It’s much easier to connect to your dignity, and demand others treat you with dignity, if you see yourself as heroic rather than broken.

I spent a lot of time these days answering variations of the question, “Am I broken?” with: “No, you’re a superhero.” And seeing how many other people will real-life roleplay being superheroes with me. Not only do lots of them say yes, but they tend to get joyful about it. So, what are your superpowers?

Welcome to the School for Gifted Youngsters (and Adults). Here’s your homework:

  • Find stories that make you feel powerful.
  • Make and tell stories.
  • Find one person who gets your story.
  • Play SuperBetter, an online game that you play as the hero of your own life (www.superbetter.com).
  • If you’re new to comics, consider starting with: Ms. Marvel and Young Avengers.
  • Think about heroes, what makes a person heroic, how you are heroic.
  • Remember that heroes need downtime, rest and many allies.

About Rachel Gold

Rachel Gold_author photo_vert_mediumRachel Gold is the award-winning author of multiple queer and trans young adult novels—including Being Emily, the first young adult novel to tell the story of a trans girl from her perspective. Her latest novel, Nico & Tucker, is about love, nonbinary lives, healing and knowing who you really are. Rachel has an MFA in Writing and a day job in marketing, but is better known as an all around geek and avid gamer. For more information visit: www.rachelgold.com.