April 29, 2013

Record Breaker

by Robin Stevenson
Orca Book Publishers
152 pp.
Ages 9-12

Most of us would do anything to alleviate the sadness and despair of one we love.  Children are inclined to do the same, although the means by which they are convinced they can do this may be rather unconventional.  Take young Jack, for example, in Robin Stevenson's latest from Orca Book Publishers, Record Breaker.  He is sure that breaking a world record will propel his mother from her overwhelming sadness following the death of his baby sister Annie, and he's willing to try just about anything. 

Jack seems like a pretty good kid.  When his dad tells him to get to the dinner table or help his mom or go to his dad's cousin's place, the Miller's, he does.  Because he often gets sent to the Millers, Jack spends a lot of time with his second cousin, Allan, who likes to repeat his mom's and dad's comments, ("My mom said it'll be a miracle if she (Jack's mom) ever gets over that baby dying" pg. 23; "My dad always said Kennedy was soft" pg. 40).  Regardless, Allan is willing to help Jack out in his record attempts, even painful ones like face-slapping. 

While Jack's concern for his mother tends to overwhelm his daily activities, several key events have an impact on him and those around him.  First, President John F. Kennedy is assassinated.  Although they live in Ancaster, the possibility of bombings are a real concern, and Jack's dad returns to building a fallout shelter started before Annie's birth.  Second, a new girl, Kate Levine, moves to a nearby neighbourhood, using a local treehouse that Jack had been using as an escape.  Kate is an astute young girl, helping Jack see that there is something, other than a world record, that he can accomplish to help his mother.  In fact, her mom believes Jack's mom needs someone to whom she can talk and Mrs. Levine volunteers to help.  Together with Allan and Kate, Jack finds the means to add some light to his mother's life, and remind both his parents that they still have a son who has been burdened with dealing with his sister's death on his own.

In the context of 1963 southern Ontario, Robin Stevenson shares the grief and fears and innuendo of a time unknown to most young readers.  But, by making the focus in Record Breaker a local one, with the grief related to the loss of a family member, the fears about a family who may be unable to rebuild itself, and others' gossip about issues of which they know very little, young readers will be able to empathize.  Even so, whether global or local, these issues can be devastating, and recovery may seem impossible.  But, as Jack and Robin Stevenson demonstrate, with a little help and a different perspective perhaps from unlikely sources, there is hope.

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