The League of Unexceptional Children
Celebrating all things average, THE LEAGUE OF UNEXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN focuses on Jonathan and Shelley, two very forgettable kids who nonetheless manage to save the free world. Taking its cues mostly from spy movies and political thrillers, the book twists expectations and revels in a very unlikely series of events that require two unknown and, yes, unexceptional children to step up and do something remarkable. The book's commitment to the average is commendable, and the main characters are rather painfully (and charmingly) unimpressive. But the very thing that makes the work unique also drags things down, coming off as a bit…counterproductive at times.
The book makes the point early on that these children are unexceptional, truly not memorable. People can't even remember Jonathan or Shelley's names, which is what actually sets them apart. In a society where excelling is expected, where it's a disappointment to not earn that "A" in school, kids that are average are rare, and in the spy world, indispensable.
While it’s interesting to make a point to show that average people can attain great things, I felt a bit uncomfortable about classifying these children as unexceptional, perhaps because pointing out their invisibility as virtuous or a good thing seems to reinforce their erasure. They are unseen, uncared for. And the book seems to come down on the side of this being a good thing, that they become agents that reinforce the status quo and protect the system that marginalizes them.
It has a charm that is infectious.
And yes, perhaps that is a rather odd complaint to level at a children's book, which is likely engaged only in trying to entertain and to give a bit of visibility to the invisible, but it's a conflict that I felt carried through the work, never quite resolved. Because, in the end, it is their erasure that make Jonathan and Shelley valuable, but the League itself doesn't really do them any favors. They are seen, but only to be exploited. They find friendship in each other, find that there is strength in believing in themselves, in pushing forward despite being ignored, which I feel is an important theme throughout. But I felt that the League had no real interest in their self-esteem, in their self-image. The League only cared to use them to save the day.
For all my complaints, though, the book is still rather fun. It has a charm that is infectious and Jonathan and Shelley are interesting and fleshed-out characters even as they're a bit painful to follow. The supporting cast is less fully realized, but most are still good for a laugh or two. The plot in general is rather insane, but in the way that any political spy plot is rather insane, here bent to make things more aimed at children. The artwork is solid, and the growing friendship between Jonathan and Shelley is compelling and strong.
Really, THE LEAGUE OF UNEXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN is a book that I wanted to like more than I did. The character work for the mains is solid, and while the plot is a bit weird, it fits with the spy movie aesthetic the book manages to capture. Where the book falls apart slightly is in the portrayal of being erased. In the book it's played a bit for laughs, and ultimately cast as a benefit for Jonathan and Shelley. In reality, it felt to me more that the people who benefit from Jonathan and Shelley's invisibility are everyone but Jonathan and Shelley. They find comfort and meaning in being seen, if only by each other, but are continually told to see their erasure as a good thing rather than trying to reverse it, and I was a little disappointed that the book didn't explore that aspect of the premise as much as it played it for laughs.
Reviewed by Charles Payseur on November 3, 2015