Written by Wendelin Van Draanen With 30 Illustrations by Stephen Gilpin
Published by Alfred A Knopf

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Dave Sanchez seems like your normal middle school boy. He oversleeps, runs late to class, but generally does what he’s told and even works as a delivery boy after school to make a little money. But he isn’t quite as normal as he seems. That’s because he has a pet gecko that is not only sentient; it also talks to Dave, and rather frequently. Plus, Dave happens to possess a metal ingot that allows him to stick to surfaces and crawl up walls, and as of late he’s taken to dressing in disguise and playing superhero around his town.

Not. Quite. Normal.

However, Dave does his best. And it even seems like his luck, along with everyone else’s in the school, is turning for the better. The odious science teacher, Ms. Krockle, is gone, and in her place is a substitute teacher. Anarchy reigns for a little while. But even anarchy gets boring for middle school children, and suddenly the substitute doesn’t seem quite as harmless as he’s been appearing to be. In fact, he’s starting to look a little familiar. And if Dave’s gecko is right, he might just have to do the most painful thing of the young boy’s life: rescue Ms. Krockle from the clutches of something even more evil than her.

This charming prose novel, ably illustrated in a way that enhances the text rather than overwhelms it, is a marvelous piece of work angled at the younger reader. Van Draanen’s writing style is light and loose, sounding much more like a storyteller sitting in front of a room full of kids than an omniscient narrator. The characters are funny and about as real as you can get in this kind of fantasy novel. Dave is very relatable, both for boys and for girls, and the environment he lives in is vibrant and keen. The villainy isn’t so villainous that it would scare kids, and has enough humor in it to make them laugh as Dave does his superheroic best to win the day.

As an added bonus, you get an honest-to-goodness Hispanic superhero in these pages, something in woefully short supply at the major comics companies right now (Blue Beetle was cancelled a while back). Every child loves reading about heroes that look, act, and sound like them, and Dave is perfect for that. There’s also a nifty guise to some basic Spanish in the back of the book for those that want to learn a little something as they read.

SINISTER SUBSTITUTE is the kind of book I would have devoured as a kid and then went looking for more. It’s the third in a series, and I suspect that many that pick this one up would go on a quest for the first two as well. Recommended.