“Captain Superlative!” is not the main character in this middle grade novel by J. S. Puller. She is, however, the inspiration and cause for the change Janey, a quiet, shy, and practically invisible middle school student, experiences over the course of this beautifully written and moving novel.
Janey’s mother died when she was nine, and since then she’s pretty much existed by drifting through school and not getting noticed. She narrates that she is “as unimportant as air. And equally invisible.” Someone who is not invisible at school is Dagmar, the soccer champion who plays so hard she wears the bruises to prove it. Dagmar is not only an expert at playing soccer, she’s truly an expert at being cruel. Her favorite target is Paige, who is as short and dark as Dagmar is tall and blonde. The interactions that Janey witnesses and narrates are terrible.
One day, someone appears at school dressed as a superhero. A bright blue wig, a mask, a silver swimsuit and tights with a red cape make up this strange outfit. The odd figure calls herself Captain Superlative and proceeds to make life a bit better for those in middle school. Captain Superlative opens doors, prepares study guides for tests, passes out mints to help concentration before exams, and sticks up for Paige. Noticeably, while Captain Superlative defends those being bullied, she is never cruel to Dagmar. In fact, Captain Superlative is the epitome of virtue and compassion.
Janey decides to find out who Captain Superlative is and follows her to the local hospital. When the superhero comes out with her parents, Janey follows them home. After Janey, inspired by Captain Superlative, faces the bully and defends Paige, Captain Superlative approaches Janey to be her sidekick, Janey is shocked, scared, and then excited. Dare Janey step out of her anonymity to join the superhero in doing good?
The Captain tells Janey, “Life is too short to be anything less than superlative.”
Janey becomes the sidekick, and the two of them slowly make changes to the school. Students appreciate what they are doing, the study guides they prepare, the mints, the opening of doors, the directions for new students. But bullies are harder to fix, although Janey makes huge strides in figuring that out, too.
When readers find out what compelled Caitlyn Li to become Captain Superlative, they will be as devastated as Janey. Readers will get angry at Janey’s reaction, but also understand why she is so angry.
And the ending? Touching and heartbreakingly perfect.
The author shared that Janey’s experiences are grounded in what she went through at her middle school in Highland Park, Illinois. She says, “while my tormentors no longer define who I am as a person, that experience never really leaves you.” But Puller also credits some amazing teachers from that middle school, including her language arts teacher of two years, Jen Ferrari, who encouraged Puller’s writing and arranged for a small group session with visiting children’s author Chris Crutcher.
While there was no Captain Superlative in middle school to rescue Puller, she does credit one real figure in her life for inspiration in her novel. She says that Janey’s father has a lot about him that was inspired by her mother. She must be an amazing woman.
This book is perfect for middle school readers as well as young adult readers. It’s dark at times, but inspiring and thought-provoking. It would be a lovely choice for a book club or classroom read. One can only hope that children everywhere start Captain Superlative clubs and do good in schools all over.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Disney-Hyperion Books, for review purposes.