Bam! Pow! Crunch! Michael Chabon builds a new superhero
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist writes bedtime story
Author Michael Chabon. (Jennifer Chaney, Harper Collins / September 4, 2011)
There. Feels good, doesn't it? Some words are just plain fun to say. And those are the words, according to Michael Chabon, that belong in any honorable, self-respecting bedtime story for children, the kind of book that kids will yank off the shelf, night after night, and say, "This one!"
Chabon, 48, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such brilliant and entertaining adult novels as "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (2000) and "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" (2007), will publish his first picture book for kids Tuesday. It's called "The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man" (HarperCollins), and it's filled with sklurps and ska-runches, with adventure and wit — and with boldly scrumptious illustrations by Jake Parker.
"The words need to have some juice to them, some snap," Chabon said in a recent phone interview. "Children are fascinated by wordplay. If a children's book is any good, the language has verve."
Chabon and his wife, author Ayelet Waldman, live in Berkeley, Calif., with their four children. "Awesome Man" was written for their youngest, Abraham, 8.
"He was in kindergarten when I wrote it," Chabon said. "I was thinking about him and what he was into, and the issue he was struggling with." That issue was "self-control, the limits of his strength. And I tried to capture the way he talked at the time."
Indeed, "Awesome Man," for all of its beguilingly inventive language, also includes some familiar-sounding phrases such as "What the heck" and "kick a little bad-guy behind."
The story introduces Awesome Man, who sports "a cape as red as a rocket, a mask as black as midnight and a stylin' letter A" on his chest.
"I'm just basically awesome," Awesome Man immodestly claims.
Along with his trusty sidekick, Moskowitz the Awesome Dog, Awesome Man battles aspiring world-dominating crooks such as Professor Von Evil and his Antimatter Slimebot, and The Flaming Eyeball. Yet despite Awesome Man's amazing powers — the same powers that will help him defeat those rotten villains — even a superhero must learn his limits.
"See, the thing is," Awesome Man confesses, "I'm superstrong. I have to be careful. I can't start hitting stuff or kicking stuff or throwing stuff around, even though that's what I want to do so badly. I might hurt somebody, or destroy a city or something."
Before he undertook the writing of a book for young children — he had previously published "Summerland" (2002), a novel for middle-school students — Chabon did his homework. That was easy, he said, because he had been reading bedtime stories to his kids for many years.
"I know what works and what doesn't work. For me, I like the books to not be too long, and to not have too much text on the page.
"The most common strategy is to end the book with 'And now it's time to go to bed.' As a parent, I think that's commendable. I chose to end with a hug."
The last page of "Awesome Man" — spoiler alert! — shows the title character's mom giving him a warm hug. And that, Chabon says, might be the perfect opportunity for the parent who's reading the story aloud to do the same with the real-live kid.
What makes bedtime books so special, Chabon said, is the special world they conjure — not only the fictional world of the book, but also the realm in which reader and listener bond.
"Reading a story creates this bubble around you. It shelters you, protects you, keeps out distractions. The main thing has to be the physical contact between parent and child.
"It's really the only thing you can do as a parent that competes with television."
As he was writing, "I went into a little bit of a trance. I had a little glimmer, and I knew I wanted to speak to my son. The central question of a superhero is physical strength and what you do with it. And my son, like other boys his age, was dealing with the same issue."
"Awesome Man" arrives at the conclusion of a summer rich with superhero movies, celebrating the likes of Green Lantern, Thor and Captain America, with more to come. New films featuring Spider-Man and Superman are on the launching pad.
"The superhero film has somehow gone from being a total embarrassing disaster that nobody was interested in to being the central pillar of Hollywood filmmaking right now," Chabon noted. "Comic book fans are running the show now. Directors, screenwriters, studio executives — they grew up loving that stuff."
As did a kid named Chabon. He was a big comics fan as a kid, he recalls. And he can remember — as does most anyone who grew up under the influence of Superman and assorted other cape-endowed, crime fighting brethren — believing, deep in his heart, that superpowers were within his reach.
Told by this writer that her eight-year-old, superhero-saturated self was convinced that, in a pinch, she would able to fly, Chabon admitted, "I remember entertaining that same certainty. And I have a vague memory of having done so, at least once."