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Cape: The League of Secret Heroes, Book 1

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Cape: The League of Secret Heroes, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Tween superheroes battle Nazis, prejudice in exciting story.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

There's a lot of information (and opportunity for further investigation) packed into this fast-moving tale, about World War II and how it affected the daily lives of people on the home front (e.g. Josie's Irish-immigrant mom is struggling to support the family while dad's fighting the Nazis; Akiko's whole family is in an internment camp because they're of Japanese ancestry, except for her brother who's also in the army fighting Nazis; the neighborhood bully's dad seems to be doing just fine). There's also lots about mathematical puzzles and solving them,  especially by the women "computers" whose work was the foundation of ENIAC, the first electronic computer. 

Positive Messages

Using your talents to protect your loved ones and do your bit to save the world is a strong theme. Plentiful positive messages about family, friendship, teamwork, community,  inclusion, and using your brain instead of just reacting. Also strong messages against stereotyping and prejudice.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Fledgling superheroes Josie, Mae, and Akiko are highly relatable as they struggle to use their superpowers to help rescue people and folk villains, while also dealing with everyday issues like bullies, prejudice, and worrying about their families. Akiko is a Japanese American girl whose family was forced from its San Francisco home and imprisoned in an internment camp.From the mysterious Mrs. Boudica to assorted kindly neighbors, Josie discovers, "Superheroes exist all around us, every day. Only, their costuming might not look so obvious." 

Violence & Scariness

A superhero gets vaporized, others are wounded, and there' s lots of superhero combat involving shape-shifting, fire, storms, and other powers pitted against a Nazi villain who morphs into a colossal rattlesnake, and creepy detail like dynamite-stuffed dead rats that are part of his fiendish plot. On the non-fantasy side, many characters are worried about loved ones in harm's way during the war, and after some foreshadowing it's revealed that one of their dads has been killed; a neighborhood bully and his gang of goons terrorize adults and kids, steal the bikes of Josie's brother, and generally add to the misery of a stressed community. At several points the girls (with and without superpowers) get embroiled in physical fights with them. Mae, who's black, and Akiko, who's Japanese American, as well as minor characters of German ancestry, face a lot of discrimination. So do girls and women in general, often being blocked from recognition for their work and capabilities.

Language

Kids use insults like "dumbbell," "dopes."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Cape is the first book in The League of Secret Heroes, a new series by author Kate Hannigan featuring three tween girls in Philadelphia during World War II, who love solving math puzzles, codes, and ciphers -- and who suddenly find themselves able to transform into superheroes with superpowers. That's a lucky thing, because a supervillain known as the Hisser, who transforms to a giant rattlesnake, is trying to do a lot of damage and steal technology for Hitler. In words and comics- panel illustrations, there's a lot of violence -- some cartoonish, like vaporized superhero combatants, and some very real, like dangers to family members, some of whom are killed in the war. There are strong messages of inclusion and avoiding stereotypes, as our heroes are a recent immigrant from Ireland, a black girl whose grandmother's a librarian, and a Japanese American girl whose family was forced from its San Francisco home and imprisoned in a camp. And, for example, not all German characters are Nazis. The women "computers" who were instrumental in building the first electronic computer are important to the story. Determination, courage, love of friends and family, and devotion to the examples of '40s-era superheroes help the girls and their allies as they battle overwhelming evil, and also neighborhood bullies. There's a lot to like about where this series seems to be going: history, girl power, loads of positive messages, and lots of fun.

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What's the story?

As CAPE opens, World War II is on, narrator/protagonist Josie O'Malley's father is fighting in the Pacific, and Josie has a part-time job before and after school to help make ends meet. Also living with the O'Malleys is Josie's older cousin Kay, who's very good at math and whose job helps the family -- all recent immigrants from Ireland who only spoke Gaelic when they arrived. Josie shares Kay's love for math and, as the story opens, is about to ditch the last day of school to take part in a puzzle solving contest. She's angry when Mr. Hissler, the examiner, doesn't even look at her test results or those of the other girl test-takers, but seems awfully interested in her male BFF Emmett, who also did well. It's yet another wrong some superhero should be righting, but superheroes have been absent from Philadelphia for some years now, and no one seems to know why, or even remember that they existed. But before too long, as Josie makes friends with her fellow puzzle-solving, superhero-loving contestants Mae and Akiko and the three find themselves recruited by the mysterious Mrs. Boudica, that's about to change. Which is also good, because Emmett has disappeared and they're pretty sure Mr. Hissler has something to do with it.

Is it any good?

Author Kate Hannigan's lively words and illustrator Patrick Spaziante's even livelier comic-book pages combine to deliver a tale of tween superheroes rising to the challenges of World War II. Whether they're coping with day-to-day evils like neighborhood bullies, discrimination, or their families being in concentration camps, or deploying their powers against Nazis and supervillains, there's lots to like about Josie, Mae, and Akiko, the mysterious Mrs. Boudica and her little dog Astra in this lively, heart-filled tale, and lots to look forward to as the series unfolds. As one of the people they rescue (unaware that Josie's actually one of his rescuers) exclaims:

"I wish my friend Josie were here to see this! She doesn't shut up about superheroes! Josie's never going to believe me when I tell her that some kids saved us.

"And not just any kids. Girls!"

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about superheroes and why we love stories about them, like Cape: The League of Secret Heroes, Book 1. Do you have any favorite superheroes? What do you like about them?

  • Do you like the way Cape tells part of its story in words and part in comic-book pages? Would you like it more if it were all one or the other?

  • If you and your friends were a league of superheroes, what would your powers be, and how would you use them?

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