Becoming a Superhero Review
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Like any boy of 10, Billy—imaginative and mischievous and growing up in a small Pennsylvania mining town in the years before and during WWII—longs to be a superhero. But he must face a few realities before his ambitions can be realized: he can’t fly (though he does attempt), and he can’t quite keep out of trouble—especially in school. However, as Billy navigates childhood—and learns more about the world around him—he learns some sound lessons about what constitutes heroism. He is helped by his mother and father, his mom-mom and pop-pop, and, of course, his conscience, manifested in the form of his “shadow” friend, William.

Over all, William D. Smith’s Becoming a Superhero: Adventures of an American Superhero is a delightful, semi-autobiographical account of his formative years during the 1940s. Many of the episodes in Billy’s adventurous childhood are vividly played out on the page. Nevertheless, as delightful as these episodes are, they’re also too brief. At times, the memories feel a little rushed, and they’re over before the readers get a chance to fully involve themselves.

The book’s jacket states that “each page is like having Grandpa tell stories of what life was like” all those years ago. The book is aimed at 8-12-year-olds, and it certainly appeals to that audience’s easily distracted nature (at least nowadays), as each chapter is only 3-5 pages long and can be read in about 10 minutes. Some of the darker story elements (such as Billy’s father’s gambling and bouts with alcohol)—which younger children may not pick up on but adults will find intriguing—are never developed. The anecdotal nature of Smith’s narrative does feel a little loose and unconnected at times, like we’ve been given a collection of columns rather than a fully fleshed-out story. But this can be seen as both a strength and a weakness.

Having said that, there are also some very poignant moments that stand out and make this book worth your time. Billy’s first experience down an actual mine shaft and his promise to his pop-pop to break away from the confines of the mining culture and “to see the world that he never could see except in books,” come readily to mind. Along his (episodic) journey, Billy comes to realize that real heroes don’t come with capes and the ability to defy gravity, but with resolve, courage, and humanity—examples being his pop-pop’s admiration for Mahatma Gandhi and the return of a young soldier to the small community.

If you enjoyed Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story or even Sandra Cisneros’s book, The House on Mango Street, then Becoming a Superhero will delight you and your children. But a little more depth and development of individual story strands could have elevated this novel into a more young adult category. The dark tones are already there; they just needed to be drawn to the fore to add a little weight to Smith’s narrative. Nonetheless, as I mentioned above, there are some moving moments in this all-too-brief memoir. But isn’t that a positive thing? After all, Smith leaves the audience shouting for more. And since he’s an educator who teaches education and psychology, he’s already a hero in my book.

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