Jack’s a solid character at 12

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May 13, 2013

Record Breaker
By Robin Stevenson
Orca Book Publishers, 142 pages, $9.95

Reviewed by Marcie Gray

The moment I picked up this book of youth fiction, I thought, “How brilliant! A story about a boy who wants to break world records!” Brilliant, because I’ve found that if you have an emerging, reluctant reader of the male variety–and you want him to read something other than comic books, hand him a copy of Guinness World Records. He’ll snatch it up and quickly memorize who has the longest fingernails, who has swallowed the most knives, who has broken the most bones. So it makes exquisite sense that this book–about 12-year-old Jack and his quest to be famous–would appeal to its young audience.

But Victoria author Robin Stevenson’s novel is not just an accounting of weird and wonderful feats. She uses world records as a device to draw in readers and tell a deeper tale about love and loss and thinking beyond yourself. Stevenson grew up in southern Ontario; she sets her story there, during the Cold War world of the Cuban Missile Crisis and U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Amidst this global chaos, Jack faces his own family crisis. His baby sister dies. Now his mother can’t get out of bed, and his father offers little comfort. Breaking a record takes on more significance as Jack hopes to make his mother laugh and make his father proud. Plot spoiler: Jack eventually realizes to help his family, he’ll have to do more than devour 17 sausages in 90 seconds.

Stevenson sets a tough task for her protagonist, but she helps us believe he’s up for the job by giving him a solid, thoughtful personality and friends who are likeable for their quirks. The story is told in first person, which can be tricky for a writer, and occasionally Stevenson does slip into a voice that is too old for a 12-year-old. I also wonder whether my own 10-year-old son would understand references to “the bomb” and “nuclear holocaust.” Ask him about 9/11 or why airline security is so tight, and he’s quick with answers, but potential nuclear war is too remote.

A little more explanation on the history side might help keep young readers interested. While this book has tension, it still feels like a gentle read, as we follow Jack in his daily life in a small town. I enjoyed the pacing but I’m not sure the sausage swallowing and other exploits would be enough to keep my boy’s nose in this book instead of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. It’s a safer bet that Record Breaker would really score in a classroom, with a teacher guiding along a group of young readers.

Marcie Gray has a background in CBC radio journalism and is at work on her own novel.

 

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