Ok…I’ve put off talking about it, but I’ve gotten enough emails, heard enough comments, had enough school visits canceled that I know it’s time.

For those of you who don’t know, I wrote a book called Sidekicks, in which we meet Bright Boy (a.k.a Scott Hutchinson), the teen-aged sidekick to superhero Phantom Justice. Bright Boy has been a sidekick since he was 8… he’s now about 13 or 14, and he’s been forced to wear the same bright, snug-fitting costume for the past 6 years. Not a problem when you’re 8; big problem when you’re 13. So right in Chapter 1, Bright Boy has to dive off a building and save a beautiful woman from falling to her death. As he’s holding this woman he’s just saved, he notices that her clothes are torn and disheveled. He can see her bra. She’s in shock, so she’s kind of out of it…but she’s also appreciative to this person who just saved her life... so she’s running her fingers through his hair, breathing heavily on his neck, whispering into his ear how amazing he is…

Scott, despite a very concerted effort to stop it, gets an erection. He’s embarrassed, and confused, and is trying to figure out how to get out of this scenario without this woman thinking he's a complete perv, when a news helicopter appears and starts taping him… and because the tights don’t hide anything, Bright Boy’s “reaction” is soon being broadcast over news stations all over the country. Bright Boy becomes a laughingstock. Kids at Scott’s school (who don’t know he’s Bright Boy) make endless jokes about it, people on tv make fun of him, supervillains take pot shots in order to distract him. Scott, who had never really cultivated a life outside of being Bright Boy, is now faced with an unexpected dilemma: neither one of his identities is comfortable. He starts to question everything about himself, his life, and the people around him…

The origin of this story was a thought I had when I was ten years old. I remember getting out of bed and going downstairs for a glass of water one night (while my parents were still awake and watching tv). I was wearing nothing but my jockey shorts. I remember my parents acting like there was nothing out of the ordinary with my “outfit” (or lack thereof), but I had this sudden feeling that I was wearing wayyyyy too little to be walking around with other people about (even if they were just my parents). I felt really funky, and exposed... Also at the time, I was a full-fledged Batman freak... and being that this was the early eighties (and the Batman comics from the 70s were still pretty available), the DC writers/artists were continuing the process of aging Robin up. I remember shortly after my “Jockey short debacle” (as it will forever be known to me), looking at a comic of a late teen/early 20’s Robin and thinking, “Man, he should really cover up.” Here he is fighting hardened criminals – thugs, thieves, murderers – and he's wearing the tiniest pair of green jockey shorts imaginable. And no one mentions it?  I mean, not one street tough has something to say about Robin’s itty-bitty bikini bottoms? Especially with all those high kicks he was throwing around? I couldn’t even go downstairs in my own house dressed like that…

All right...so, as that idea percolated in my head for the next 25 or so years, I read such brilliant works as The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, which were some of the first stories to really question the motives of superheroes in the very worlds that those heroes inhabited (instead of just real world pundits talking about how comic books rot kids’ brains...). These two stories explored the now-ubiquitous question - would the world really be a better place if these heroes actually existed?  And that got me thinking about motivations. What would motivate a real person in our world to try to become a superhero? And what are the acceptable motivations for a superhero, as far as the public is concerned?  Altruism, definitely...(Hello, Superman...)  Revenge, sure...(Batman, in a safe way...The Punisher in a less black-and-white, more post-Vietnam, shades of gray kind of way).  Responsibility, both personal (Spider-man), and social (Green Arrow). Thrill-seeking was also okay (Iron Man). There were others, of course...but there were two motivations that were definitely frowned upon...making money (although Luke Cage, Hero for Hire flirted with that idea), and sex. Under absolutely no circumstances was a superhero supposed to get any sexual thrill from dressing up in tights and running around the city (The Watchmen did an AMAZING job at addressing this). Ick. It calls into question not just the heroism of that specific hero, but the concept of superheroes as a whole. What are their motivations, really?  Is that guy or woman saving me doing it for his or her own pervy reasons? It’s uncomfortable, and I think it touches a nerve (just replace “superhero” with “police officer” in that scenario to see what I mean...)  

So, take my perception of how superheroes would be received today (akin to celebrities with super powers), and add one ill-timed sexual response (Bright Boy’s erection...kind of like Janet Jackson’s “Boob-gate”)… add to it a common narrative that celebrities and sports stars have to deal with all the time (are they mentors to children or not?), but multiply it by a thousand… because superheroes by their very design are supposed to be mentors. They’re designed to be the ideals (physically, mentally, but most importantly, MORALLY) that the public strives for...and how would the public react if they thought those paragons of morality had their own creepy agendas as their main motivation? I think the public would freak out a bit. They'd literally play the slip up over and over again (See "Boob-gate"), and every talking head in the world would have a chance to weigh in…setting up the ironic situation of a powerful superhero being picked on and bullied by the very public he’s chosen to protect.

As for Scott’s take on it all, he’s confused, as any kid going through that is -- as I was -- and in my opinion, it would get A LOT of his attention, too. Why am I doing this whole hero thing? Is it for the thrills? Is getting an “inappropriate erection” really a sign of a moral failing, or is it just an isolated event? Can I keep that from happening again?  Do I want to?  Am I really a “perfect” person, like everyone wants their heroes to be?  Or is the answer more complex than that?  

Eventually, the least likely person in Scott’s life helps him to realize that it’s not the “accidental erection” that’s a statement about his motivations and morality…nor is it the public’s reaction to it… What’s going to define Scott/Bright Boy as a person and a hero is his own moral compass… and the more we learn about Scott, the more we realize that he has nothing to worry about.

To me, it all starts with that “accidental erection,” and it’s a moment important enough to merit the attention.  It’s an exploration of motivation that lots of boys go through at that age...but add to that the whole narrative of acceptable superhero motivation, and I think it becomes a much bigger story.

Now, the comments I’ve gotten have suggested that Scott getting an erection is totally inappropriate for a kid his age, or for a kid his age to be reading about. As a former teen boy, I respectfully disagree. I remember suffering through my first “inappropriate reaction” when I was eleven. By the time I was thirteen, there were so many that they’ve faded into memory. It happened. A lot. The best you could do was cross you legs, readjust the books you were holding, or count on the fact that very few people would be looking directly at your crotch. (I also learned that sometimes your efforts to cover-up did nothing more than draw attention to what you were hiding… If you need a quick definition for irony, there it is…)

It’s also been suggested that I created this scenario as a half-baked way to get in as many lowbrow jokes as I could. I hope it’s apparent from all I’ve written above that very few people have ever accused me of under-thinking something. And although those jokes were fun to write, the main focus of them was always the emotional response they provoked from Scott.

Someone whose insight I greatly respect suggested to me that some of the discomfort may be because there aren’t a lot of middle-grade books that deal with male puberty. She reminded me that the topic of female puberty comes up in books aimed at girls aged 9-13 (Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?, Walk Two Moons, the Winnie series, etc…), and is generally more accepted. Now, I certainly don’t want to suggest my writing is on par with Judy Blume, Sharon Creech, or Lauren Myracle (it ain’t). And please don't think I'm pointing fingers in a "gender politics" kind of way, because I'm not. What I am curious about though is that Sidekicks is meant to take on the topic of puberty from a male point of view, and I wonder if there’s something about the very nature of male sexuality that makes it less comfortable to discuss.

I don't have the answers...but I am interested in the discussion. Thoughts?

 


Comments

08/28/2012 15:35

Jack - good for you! Thank you for writing about this subject in a book/format that pubescent boys can relate to. I love that Scott's a sidekick - superheroes and sidekicks are what boys like to read about. And you're right, we need the male perspective on puberty. I'm going to buy a copy for my son.

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jackyboy72
08/28/2012 18:16

Thanks, Ali! I hope he likes it...

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10/12/2013 05:54

I am really surprised at the way you particular out everything. It is really going to help me a lot. Thanks for talking about your thoughts so clearly.

08/29/2012 02:58

I'm over in the UK and hadn't heard of your book until it was mentioned on an email list I'm on and I'm so glad I clicked through now. Your discussion is thoughtful and relevant and I do hope lots of people will come and read your comments (and book!). I recently reviewed a children's book where there is an erection - Fruitloops and Dipsticks by Ulf Stark (a Swedish author) - I didnt' want to mention the erection in the review because I thought then the whole discussion of the book might centre on it - but all the parents and librarians I spoke to said it was really important to them that I did "warn" (tell them in advance ie in the review) them about the content. It's a tremendous book - here's my review in case you're interested: http://www.playingbythebook.net/2012/08/01/chaos-sex-death-and-a-wonderful-wonderful-childrens-book/

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jackyboy72
08/29/2012 17:20

Thanks, Zoe! Great review...That book does sound great...I'll have to check it out.

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10/02/2013 09:44

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Very good and useful information. Why not write a book about this topic.For today’s economic fluctuation and lack of opportunities, it really will be a very hot topic.

08/29/2012 07:45

I thought that you were appropriate and circumspect in describing the incident, and it was critical to the book. I enjoyed the shades of gray in which characters were good and which were bad, and thought that the book was thought provoking and enjoyable, which is a hard balance to get. It's a fair topic to cover, and you didn't approach it in a frivolous way. Thanks for explaining some of the history of the writing process.

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jackyboy72
08/29/2012 17:27

I tried not to be frivolous... funny (in the delivery of the ridicule), but not frivolous (in how Scott reacts to it). Thank you for understanding Ms. Yingling!

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Steve Weiner
08/29/2012 08:39

OK, Jack, I've got a question. Who is doing all this complaining? Are your letters from adults or kids themselves? I can't imagine a kid complaining. If a kid reading the book thought the subject was "inappropriate", he or she wouldn't write to you, that person would just stop reading(of course if a kid DID write to you complaining, that might be considered a great compliment).

I will tell you this: when you spoke in Maynard last spring, & spoke to the 8th grade, they completely understood it. Even the boys sitting in the back, who almost always are bored to death by these things.

You might consider writing back to these people complaining & ask them when the last time an up & coming author spoke at their school & held the entire 8th grade, even the kids who are always sent out of assembly, rapt.

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jackyboy72
08/29/2012 18:52

Oh man...Thank you, Steve! That was certainly one of the best school visits I've had. The kids were awesome!

Yeah, it's been all adults who have complained, canceled visits, and such. I've written back to one librarian, stated my case much as I did above, but never heard back.

It's tricky because as the writer, I know what my intention in writing that erection scene was... when someone's perception does not match my intention, it bothers me, but I can't control it. I can try to engage the person in some sort of discourse, but that's a tight-rope act... The big risk is that I come off looking completely defensive: like I refuse to allow someone else to have an opinion about my book. That's why, instead, I decided to state my case above. For the people who've made up their minds about my book, I don't think I'm going to change them... the best I can hope for is that I show my motivation for writing what I did...explain that I didn't do it as a lark, or solely as a means for making jokes about anatomy. There were real reasons for the choices I made.

But again, thank you Steve! Support from people like you keeps me going!

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10/06/2013 02:07

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ULY
09/08/2012 20:47

Just FYI, it does come up in at least one Judy Blume book that I can think about, namely "Then Again, Maybe I Won't". I'm pretty sure I've read a few other middle grade/YA (you know, a little old for middle grade, a little young for YA) books with male protagonists where it comes up (hee!) as well.

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jackyboy72
09/12/2012 20:28

A friend of mine brought up "Then Again, Maybe I Won't" as well... I haven't read that in forever... I'll have to check it out again.

And I see what you did there...Sweet sassy molassy!

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Uly
09/08/2012 20:51

Ipad didn't let me leave a few comments. I'm thinking it might appear in some Jerry Spinelli books as well, though don't quote me on that.

With regards to your book, the people who dislike seeing a normal teenage erection in a book geared towards teens are the same sort of people who complain that a book geared to the same age group mentions menstruation because "Some parents haven't discussed that with their children yet". If you haven't talked about menstruation before your daughter might reasonably start menstruating, you are a bad parent. And I'll go ahead and say it - despite not being a guy - that this goes for people who try to shield their sons from aspects of male puberty as well. They have to know about it BEFORE they feel like freaks because nobody warned them.


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jackyboy72
09/12/2012 20:38

Yeah, as a relatively new parent (6 and 3), I'm having a hard time imagining NOT talking to my kids about stuff like that, as early as possible. It needs to be normalized for them. It's funny though...I completely understand if a parent chooses not to give Sidekicks to their child because they feel like their kid isn't ready for it. I do have an issue when those people then try to make that conclusion universal...

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10/08/2013 09:34

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09/12/2012 23:52

I have a 13 year old son. I have accidentally seen him in a state of undress (coming out of the shower). What gave me pause about Sidekicks (which I thoroughly enjoyed) (my review is here: http://janasbooklist.blogspot.com/2011/04/tween-tuesday-sidekicks-by-jack-d.html) is that from my limited 13 year old boy experience, how was the erection even noticeable? My sons "member" is tiny still!

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jackyboy72
09/14/2012 09:05

Hoo boy...I hope your son's friends aren't coming here, Jana...:) I do think you should throw a pair of tights on him and see what happens, though...

Trust me, changing for gym in middle and high school revealed a lot (literally and well...literally...). Some guys are more "advanced" at an early age than others. I remember one kid in middle school had a full head of hair down there...at age 12! Also, there were certain pairs of pants that revealed what you had going on, regardless of size (sweatpants... or tights, for example)...

Let me sum up by saying I REALLY hope your son's friends don't read this.

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09/14/2012 09:38

They won't be :).

Dave
10/02/2012 21:07

I found that Scott's little "accident" was completely forgivable and made a lot of sense to me. I'm glad you made a point on how superheros have to fight crime in tights. My Dad is a Martial Arts expert...he says it's even hard to give a descent kick in jeans. Nonetheless, wouldn't tights be even harder? I understand how superheros where costumes for a disguise...but who's idea made them tights?
I heard...long, long ago, so far back that Stan Lee was a teenager...superheroes didn't wear tights. I think Superman, being so popular and all, inspired everyone else to draw their heroes in tights too. But that still doesn't answer the question of tights. It also doesn't answer the question why capes help you fly. I heard capes would actually get in the way of lfying
So who's dumb idea was it, anyway?
I found that Scott's little "accident" was completely forgivable and made a lot of sense to me. I'm glad you made a point on how superheros have to fight crime in tights. My Dad is a Martial Arts expert...he says it's even hard to give a descent kick in jeans. Nonetheless, wouldn't tights be even harder? I understand how superheros where costumes for a disguise...but who's idea made them tights?
I heard...long, long ago, so far back that Stan Lee was a teenager...superheroes didn't wear tights. I think Superman, being so popular and all, inspired everyone else to draw their heroes in tights too. But that still doesn't answer the question of tights. It also doesn't answer the question why capes help you fly. I heard capes would actually get in the way of lfying
So who's dumb idea was it, anyway?

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Uly
01/11/2013 20:00

My understanding is that superhero outfits are based off of those worn by circus strongmen. Of course, super heroine outfits....

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Ian
12/23/2012 23:06

So does this mean there's gonna be a sequel? PLEASE?

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Taylore
05/18/2013 22:45

Hey Jack. I'm a 15 year old girl. I read your book and I fell in love with it. Right after I finished, I read it again! Then I thought about reading it for a third time, but I stopped myself there. I think the whole erection thing was fine but I'm a girl so I'm not sure if my say even matters, including the fact that I'm past puberty and 15. Yes, well I hope all is well and I'm praying for a sequel!!! Thank you for writing such a creative and enjoyable, hilarious book! Chacha :)

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11/03/2013 21:56

does anyone know if theres gonna be a sequeal to Sidekick soon?

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11/03/2013 21:58

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