Five geeky fifth graders transform issues—among them asthma, hyperactivity and allergies—into spy superpowers in a new middle-grade adventure series by Michael Buckley, author of the Sisters Grimm series. Out this month from Amulet with a 100,000-copy first printing is the inaugural book, NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society, Book One, illustrated by Ethen Beavers. In this novel, the popular captain of a peewee football team gets kicked off the squad after his orthodontist installs 14 pounds of braces in his mouth and his headgear prevents him from wearing a helmet. But luckily his headgear can morph into nifty spy gadgets, which turns him into quite the cool nerd and helps him and his fellow spies save the world.

Buckley’s 20th high school reunion fueled the idea for the five-book NERDS series. A self-described elementary-school nerd, the author recalls taking stock of his former classmates while sitting in the reunion banquet hall. “I noticed all the popular kids I had envied in school seemed to have miserable lives now,” he says. “It seemed that a lot of them had experienced broken relationships and were out of shape. And then I realized that the kids who had been nerds—the kids who I’d never be caught dead with even though I was one of them but of course refused to admit it—had amazing lives and incredible careers. And I like to joke that they all married supermodels. It seemed that life had done a 180!”

Michael Buckley.
Photo: Sarah Sloboda.

Buckley started thinking about writing a novel about young nerd heroes who possess powers that can save the world, in silly ways. His goal in NERDS is to entertain kids with humorous plots while sending them a message about the kids who are sitting in a corner of the school cafeteria alone. “Those are the kids who will grow up to cure diseases, invent amazing things and really make a difference, and I want kids to realize that getting to know them might be a very good thing,” he says. “I wanted the series to include multicultural stories about kids from different walks of life and stories in which boys and girls are equally important. And I wanted to focus a bit on bullying and self-esteem, but didn’t want to preach. I wanted to write something fun and full of adventure.”

Buckley succeeded in his mission, according to Susan Van Metre, associate publisher of Amulet and Abrams Books for Young Readers, who edits the new series as well as the author’s Sisters Grimm novels, which have sold a million copies. “Michael obviously writes very good girl characters, but I thought it would be great for him to write a series with male protagonists, too,” she says. “His humor is earthy and slapsticky—it’s perfect for boys and actually makes the boy in anyone giggle. And readers will easily connect to the subject of the series. What kid doesn’t feel they have great qualities that aren’t appreciated?”

This Friday, September 18, Buckley launches a national tour for NERDS, which the publisher is promoting with a dedicated Web site, online advertising and NERDS invisible ink pens (available to booksellers). The author is currently writing the series’ second installment, tentatively titled Dial M for Mama’s Boy, scheduled for fall 2010 release. Amulet will also publish the eighth Sisters Grimm book, The Inside Story, next spring.

Does Buckley find writing NERDS a very different challenge than penning the Sisters Grimm stories? “I wanted this new series to be a different kind of funny and tried to write in a different kind of voice,” he replies. “It’s always a challenge when you create something new and try to discover who these characters are who are running around on your paper. I’ve know the Sisters Grimm characters for so long that I know what they’ll do and say. Creating new characters is like moving to a new town and trying to make friends in a new school. In a weird way, somehow I feel compelled to get these new characters to like me. That’s my new challenge.”

NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society (Book One) by Michael Buckley, illustrated by Ethen Beavers. Abrams/Amulet, $14.95 Sept. ISBN 978-0-8109-4324-7