James and Smith show how an unassuming boy can save the day: with equal parts heart and oddball jokes.
Murph is a quiet 11-year-old tired of moving from place to place with his chronically underemployed mother. There’s no room in this new town’s public schools for Murph, but a chance encounter with an unusually muscled administrator scores him a spot in a school curiously named The School. Murph soon learns that The School is only for children with Capes, or Capabilities, the modern term for superpowers. He’s allowed to stay on despite his total lack thereof, making friends with other marginalized kids including Nellie, quiet but powerful, and Mary, who flies using an umbrella. Supervillain Nektar is the absurd but menacing result of a lab accident involving wasp DNA; he is aided by his unctuous henchperson. The lengthy (300-plus pages) story is mostly carried by the goofy humor, including direct appeals to readers to shout things like “I AM THE KING OF THE PINEAPPLE PEOPLE” and other absurdist touches. The humor sometimes tips over into mean-spirited, as in the case of the motley cast of bullies depicted as ugly or fat. Brown-skinned Nellie and Asian Billy are two of the very few characters of color as depicted in Salcedo’s illustrations.
Funny but flawed, this meandering adventure is an addition to the current crop of not-quite-superhero titles for middle graders. (Adventure. 8-13)