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Bookmark: A new kind of superhero book for kids

September 29, 2011|By Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune Cultural Critic

Repeat after me:

Sklurp.

Skreeech.

Ska-runch.

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!"

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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), has published his first picture book for kids. 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 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."

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