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Public School Superhero
Illustrated by Cory Thomas
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Kenny Wright is a kid with a secret identity. In his mind, he's Stainlezz Steel, super-powered defender of the weak. In reality, he's a chess club devotee known as a "Grandma's Boy," a label that makes him an easy target for bullies. Kenny wants to bring a little more Steel to the real world, but the question is: can he recognize the real strength and goodness inside himself? Or will peer pressure force him to make the worst choice of his life?
Interspersed with fantastic illustrations and comic-book panels, this book aims to both entertain and to provoke dialogue about identity, belonging, and doing the right thing.
Table of Contents
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I AM STAINLEZZ STEEL
THE REAL ME
Today I, Stainlezz Steel, am officially bugged out. Today's my first day at Union Middle School, and the truth is, I'm a little scared.
Don't laugh. My school is way worse than your school. Believe that.
In real life, I am mild-mannered, easy-to-get-along-with Kenny Wright. And as you may have figured out by now, Stainlezz Steel only exists in my crazy mixed-up imagination.
Superheroes aren't real. I know that. But you show me a kid who says he never wished he could fly like Superman, or run like the Flash, or mess around inside Iron Man's supersuit… and I'll show you a kid who's lying through his grill.
That's why I made up Stainlezz Steel. Inside my head, I mean. Because I have about as much chance of being a superhero as a turtle has of winning a hundred-yard dash. And the only battles I ever win are on the chessboard.
Not like Steel.
It doesn't help that my stubborn-as-a-donkey Grandma Hope insists on walking me to school, either. (I call her G-ma for short. She calls me Kenneth, for long, but you can just call me Kenny.)
I explained to G-ma that I'm in sixth grade now. It's straight-up embarrassing to show up with your granny on the first day. Everyone thinks I'm kind of a geek to begin with. Well… maybe not a geek-geek, but I'm definitely not "that dude." You know that dude; the ladies love him, and the fellas want to be him. But try explaining that to G-ma. She may not be hard of hearing, but she can definitely be hard of listening, if you know what I mean. And she has an opinion about EVERYTHING.
And don't get me wrong. I've got mad respect for G-ma. She takes good care of me, and I try to do the same for her. She also makes the best peach upside-down cake you ever tasted.
It's just that I'm crazy nervous about starting middle school. Like, throw-up-on-my-shoes nervous. Kids like me can get stomped down pretty quick at a place like Union Middle.
But G-ma doesn't notice. On the real, for a little old lady, she has a lot of heart. She's fearless. Sometimes I think she may be a champion MMA prizefighter at night. Hey, it's possible. She just keeps walking on down Martin Luther King Avenue, talking to me about grades and high expectations, while I try to hold on to my breakfast and figure out how I'm going to make it through the first day.
Times like these, I could use a little less Kenny and a lot more Steel.
WELCOME TO UMS
Okay, in my neighborhood, my school is known as Fort Union. That's because of the crazy-strict military base rules there.
No kids get inside until 7:50 a.m., sharp.
No kids get inside without a student ID.
No kids get inside without opening their backpacks for the security guards.
And that's just the front door. I'm sure it'd take you less time to get through the airport's high-tech security with explosives tied to your calves. It's crazy, man. This is what I go through, every stinkin' day.
When I get past security, I find that my homeroom doesn't even have real windows. It's just metal screens where someone broke out the glass over the summer.
Also, it's kind of crowded in here. "Overcrowded" would be an understatement. For real.
After attendance, my homeroom teacher, Ms. Green, takes us around the school and shows us where everything is.
Downstairs on the first floor, the library's about the size of a closet. There's one rolling computer cart with two computers for the whole school. Also some wrinkly old posters of President Obama, Dr. King, and Rosa Parks on the wall. They just look sad and tired, which I don't think is supposed to be the idea. I may come in really late one night as Steel and hang up a few Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Sojourner Truth posters. Yeah, like that.
Ms. Green shows us the cafeteria next. Then I ask her where the gym is, but she just shrugs.
"They've got a gym at Union High," she says. "Here at the middle school, we just sectioned off a part of the parking lot. Sometimes we take students to the park down the street."
And I haven't even talked about the other kids yet.
At UMS, the sixth-grade classes are on the second floor. Seventh grade is on the third floor. And eighth grade is on the fourth floor. In other words, the higher you go, the more dangerous it gets. Because those eighth graders… I can't even front… they can be a little intimidating—scratch that, they can be straight-up scary sometimes. About half of the boys have full beards, and I've seen at least three girls with healthy mustaches. No lie.
Believe me, you do not want to get caught alone on the fourth floor in this place.
Or in the stairwell.
And definitely not in the bathroom. Never in the bathroom. I've already decided that if I ever have to go, I'm just going to hold it until high school. Peeing your pants is not a good look, but you know, sometimes in life, especially life at Fort Union, a brotha has to weigh his options. Carefully.
So wish me luck. I think I'm going to need it.
MY TINY PROBLEM
First period, I have history with Mr. Hillcoat. He comes in, writes his name on the board, and then tells us to open our books. "Start reading," he says. "Keep reading till the bell. No one will be permitted to use the restroom, and please, whatever you do, don't disturb me. Thanks, guys." Then he takes a seat at his desk, props up his muddy kicks, and watches SportsCenter on his iPad.
I'm pretty sure there are some good teachers at Union Middle School. Maybe even some great teachers—the kind who make everything fun and who really want you to do your best.
Mr. Hillcoat is not one of those teachers. He's a bum, or what we in DC call a bamma: a clueless, useless person. Or it could mean someone who dresses like a clown. That's Mr. Hillcoat. Bamma to the millionth degree. He looks like he just stepped out of a bad film from 1984. His gear is busted. Straight busted.
Also, my history book is so old, it is history. Like maybe George Washington's kids used it when they went to middle school. The only thing holding it together now is some old yellow packing tape. But I don't think Hillcoat notices or cares.
This is another thing about UMS. There aren't always enough seats to go around. My history class has twenty-five desks and twenty-eight kids.
Actually… make that twenty-nine kids, because Tiny Simpkins just rolled in.
I know Tiny from around the way. He's always up to no good. He's taller than any sixth grader should be—six foot two, and just as big around. He also has four older brothers: Tommy, Terrell, Tony, and Theo.
Theo plays football, middle linebacker, for Howard University. He may even go pro if he can control his temper. Terrell and Tommy play football at Union High, and of course, Tony plays football with the eighth graders. They have anger management issues, too. The Simpkins brothers are no joke. If you see any of those guys coming your way, your best move would be to freeze, like a chameleon. And you better hope that you blend in with that mailbox or that light pole, because if they see you, it just might be curtains for you, son. For real. Man, they beat people down just for fun—for fun!
"Wassup, Grandma's Boy?" Tiny says. He always calls me that, which is just one of the reasons I can't stand him.
"Wassup, Tiny?" I say back.
"No, man," he says, stepping up on me. "Wassup?"
And then I figure it out. He doesn't mean What's up? He means Get up off of that seat, or else.
And I think—
See, kids like Tiny love to come after kids like me. I always want to say, "Man, it's not my fault I get good grades, so step off." (It's actually G-ma's fault. She makes me do all my homework, all the time.) But I figured out a long time ago that I have a better chance of surviving all the way to college if I do three things: keep working hard in school, don't talk about my grades, and don't give kids like Tiny any other reasons to beef with me.
So instead, it goes more like this—
'Cause let's face it. Unlike Stainlezz Steel, I've got no chance against someone like Tiny Simpkins.
And I never will.
The fun doesn't end at 3:15, either. After the final bell, I get ambushed by G-ma.
Well, not exactly ambushed, since I knew she was coming. See, my grandmother used to be a teacher herself. She spent sixty-one years in the public schools—and if that doesn't make you tough, nothing will.
Now she's a reading tutor for kids who need it. That happens right after last period, three days a week. And that means I have to hang around and wait for her, one hour every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Just like last year at my old school, and the year before. And the year before that.
Sometimes I'll do my homework, or read a book. Sometimes my friend Arthur Wong will hang with me, like he's doing today. Arthur likes a lot of the same stuff I do. He's got an awesome comic collection, and he's just as good at chess as I am. Someday we're going to be champions and battle in the world-class tournaments.
Meanwhile, we take turns kicking each other's butts.
It may not look like it, but chess is a war. It's two armies going head-to-head, and only one of them can survive. I like to think of my pieces like the Avengers, or the Justice League. Every different piece has its own superpowers. Knights can turn invisible and sneak around corners. Bishops are made of rubber, and they can slip through anything. Queens have superstrength. That kind of stuff.
So actually, it's not so bad hanging around after school. Especially when Arthur's there.
The only problem is, you know who else is around right after school? The detention crew. The D-Squad. And they tend to be the kinds of kids I was talking about before—the ones who call me Grandma's Boy and give me quick, hard jabs to the kidneys in the hall when no one's looking. Which is most of the time, at UMS.
So I'm not that surprised to see Ray-Ray Powell come sneaking around.
Ray-Ray's not like the other bullies. He's not extra-big, or extra-strong, or even all that scary. He's just extra-annoying.
And he's always—I mean always—begging for food.
"What up, fellas?" he says. He already knows from fifth grade that I usually have something good for an after-school snack. So of course he's here.
Today it's G-ma's homemade chocolate chip cookies. I already gave one to Arthur, but I put them away the second I see Ray-Ray coming.
"Go away, Ray-Ray," I say. "Don't you have detention or something?"
"Not today," Ray-Ray says.
Meanwhile, Arthur moves his knight and takes one of my pawns. I don't mind. I have a game plan. I always do. In chess, you have to think as far ahead as your brain will let you.
"Why's that piece bigger than the others?" says Ray-Ray, pointing at my king.
"'Cause he's the king," I say. "Leave it be."
But Ray-Ray picks it up anyway.
"Cool," he says. "A black king. That's what's up!"
"Put it back!" I tell him, which is a mistake. The second Ray-Ray knows you care about anything, it's like he can't get enough of bugging you about it. And I think—
I reach for the king, but Ray-Ray doesn't budge. He's got my number. He knows I won't step to him.
"What you got to trade?" he says, looking at my backpack like he has X-ray vision on those cookies or something.
It's Arthur's chess set. I don't want him losing his king. So I pull out one of the cookies. "This is the last one. That's all I have," I say. Which is a lie.
Ray-Ray hands me back the king and shoves that cookie down in one bite.
"Dang," he says with his mouth full. "You got it made, Grandma's Boy. She hooks you up!"
"Don't call me that," I say.
"Man, stop getting all sensitive on me. You know what you are, fool."
"We done here?" I say.
Before he leaves, he wipes some crumbs off his shirt and they fall on the chessboard. "See you, Wong," he says. "See you, Grandma's Boy."
Then he rolls out of there, all high and mighty like his poop don't stink. But it most definitely does—literally. Dude is smellin' foul! But then I look down at his kicks and notice that he must've stepped in a heap of dog crap. Somehow, he hasn't noticed yet, and I don't say a word. It's karma, baby. If you treat people like poop, that's what you receive. A heap of it.
Doo times two.
"You know, he's just going to keep coming back," Arthur says. "It's like feeding a stray cat."
"Whatever," I say. I'm not afraid of Ray-Ray. "One day I'm gonna snap on that fool. You'll see." But the truth is, I'm afraid of fighting. Nobody ever showed me how, and it's not exactly the kind of thing you learn from your grandma.
"If it makes Ray-Ray go away, that's all I care about," I say.
I put my king back on the board where it belongs. Then I slide my bishop diagonally over three squares and look up at Arthur again.
"Oh, man," Arthur says.
"Checkmate," I say.
CLEANING UP THE STREETS
At 4:15, I meet G-ma by the front door. She hands in her visitor pass at the security desk and we head out.
First stop, Ricky's Market, for some sausage, peppers, and onions. G-ma's making my favorite subs for dinner.
"So how was your first day, mister middle schooler?" she asks me while we're walking.
"Fine," I say.
"Excuse me? That was an essay question," she says, "not multiple choice. You can do better than that."
Here's the thing, though. I don't want G-ma worrying. The more she knows about Tiny, and Ray-Ray, and how I don't stand up for myself, the more she's going to worry.
And the more she's going to watch over me.
And the more everyone's going to keep calling me Grandma's Boy.
And the worse it's going to be for me at school.
You see how that works?
So I just tell G-ma about my classes, and which teachers I have, and what was for lunch. That kind of stuff.
Besides, G-ma already has enough to worry about. It's just the two of us, and we don't exactly live in the best neighborhood in DC. Straight ahead, there's some shady dudes hanging out on the corner. I see them exchanging money and unidentified items in Ziploc bags so fast, they could be magicians. G-ma and I mind our own business and keep it moving.
I know she wants to tell them to take their "hustle" somewhere else, but even she keeps her mouth shut sometimes. Not for long, though. Now that she's seen Union Middle School from the inside, she's got plenty to say about that.
"They should take a bulldozer to that sorry building and start from scratch," she says. "The library alone is a disgrace. And right here in our nation's capital! I'd bet you a nickel if someone told the president what was down here, he'd want to do something about it."
And I think, Well, maybe. It's not like Union's invisible or anything. And the White House is only 4.3 miles away from our house. I looked it up on Google Earth once.
But I don't say any of that to G-ma. I just nod my head. To be honest, my grandmother's more like a superhero than I am. Once she makes up her mind about something, you can bet more than a nickel it's going to happen.
Well… with a little help, maybe.
STRAIGHT TO THE TOP
Praise for Public School Superhero:
"The authors never get too preachy for their own good.... Told with the humorous style characteristic of Patterson when he's in preteen mode, the novel fits right in with I Funny, Middle School, and the like. Adding to the book's charm [are] comic-filled pages that help further illustrate Kenny's inner workings as well as present just plain fun superhero stories. A smart and kind story topped with just the right amount of social justice."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Packed with fast-paced tween-speak, Public School Superhero will entertain and enlighten.... Readers will also enjoy the multiple pages of funny, comic book-style illustrations packed with superhero stunts and preteen angst.... Definitely buy this one."—School Library Journal
- "With admirers of all ages, don't be surprised if everyone wants to get their hands on [Patterson's] latest."—Booklist
Praise for I Funny:A #1 New York Times Bestseller
- "....Poignant.... Readers learn about [Jamie's] devastating loss and recovery from a tragic event....The affecting ending, which reveals a more vulnerable Jamie behind the guise of his humor, celebrates Jamie's resilient spirit."—Kirkus Reviews
- "In all, a brimming bucket of bada-bing!"—Booklist
- "The broad humor that runs throughout this heavily illustrated story... masks personal pain, demonstrating resiliency in the face of tragedy."—Publishers Weekly
- Praise for Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life:
- * "As Patterson artfully weaves a deeper and more thought-provoking tale of childhood coping mechanisms and everyday school and family realities, readers are drawn into a deeper understanding of and compassion for the main characters."—School Library Journal, starred review
- "Readers will discover the best kind of child: one that is intelligent, artistic, and brave.... A world perfectly described through a 12-year-old's point of view...a satisfying and progressive tale with real sweetness."—Kirkus Reviews"A keen appreciation of kids' insecurities and an even more astute understanding of what might propel boy readers through a book.... a perfectly pitched novel."—Los Angeles Times"Cleverly delves into the events that make middle school so awkward: cranky bus drivers, tardy slips, bathroom passes and lots of rules.... Hopefully, this isn't the last we hear from Rafe Khatchadorian."—The Associated Press
- "It's a chatty, funny, engaging book, one that often addresses the reader directly. It's filled with energetic cartoons... that will appeal to your little rebel, depicting teachers as dungeon-keepers, matadors and flying dragons. Patterson... knows how to structure a plot and builds in some surprising--even touching--twists.... Rafe is the bad boy with a heart of gold."—The New York Times
- "The book's... dynamic artwork and message that 'normal is boring' should go a long way toward assuring kids who don't fit the mold that there's a place for them, too."—Publishers Weekly
- "Incredibly detailed and imaginative illustrations . . . add depth and humor. . . . an enjoyable story that even the most reluctant readers should enjoy."—Library Media Connection
- "There is substance as well as appeal here.... Patterson deftly manages the pace of revelations that take readers deeper into Rafe's fragile trust.... Readers ready for something else in the same vein but more substantive than Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Peirce's Big Nate should be introduced to Rafe."—Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
- On Sale
- Mar 16, 2015
- Hachette Audio