Teddy Mars, Almost a World Record Breaker by Molly Burnham – Reviewed by Johanna McKenna
Teddy Mars is a ten-year-old anti-hero. Not the darkly brooding kind that plans world destruction. Not the snarky, oppositional “let’s see how crazy I can make the grown-ups” kind. Not even the dysfunctional “problem of the week” kind transformed by a mentor with a heart of gold. Teddy Mars is the everyman kind of anti-hero. A sort of Thurber-esque figure. A little self-absorbed, somewhat tender hearted, ironic, a tad pessimistic, but with a stubborn hope and determination to find his own place in the world. It is this quality of resilience in the face of adversity (The Destructor, in particular) combined with a rueful appreciation of the power of “Murphy’s Law” that makes him such an irresistible and adorable character who is easy to root for. Teddy is a collector. He doesn’t collect Pokemon cards or action figures. He collects facts. And the Guinness Book of World Records is a treasure trove of information and accomplishment. Teddy is passionate about both.
This engaging and genuinely amusing story follows Teddy through his tenth year and his constant search for a way to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. Teddy is completely believable as young boy trying to BE someone, crafting his own particular personality to stand out among the colorful siblings in his rather manic family. And really, whose parents permit a child to spend months, freezing cold winter months no less, living in a backyard tent? The best parents ever, obviously, even though they too often put other needs ahead of Teddy’s.
On top of his driving passion for a world record, Teddy also has to do the normal things. Like attend school with his friends Lonnie and Viva. Complete his bird report on pigeons for Ms. Raffeli of the emphatic eyebrows. Protect his possessions and his sanity from the depredations of his four-year-old brother, Jake, who in typical Destructor fashion gets into all of Teddy’s stuff. And take care of Grumpy Pigeon Man’s pigeon flock next door. Middle aged readers will certainly relate to the daily challenges he faces from fending off his persistently aggravating sister, Grace, to coping with his Mom’s forgetfulness, and Grumpy Pigeon Man’s outspoken refusal to be pleased. They will also be fascinated by the sprinkling of genuinely arcane facts gleaned from the GBWR. My guess is the GBWR will be the next book they read, if they haven’t already.
Author Molly Burnham manages to make all of the mayhem seem realistic and human and funny, ok, hilarious. My favorite line: “The Projectiles page reminds me of my family and Thanksgiving.” Maybe because of the daily chaos, Burnham’s characters are warm and drawn with love and appreciation for human frailty. The result is a book that celebrates the bonds of family and friendship and the interconnectedness of people. Even when Teddy isolates himself in his backyard tent, and Grumpy Pigeon Man’s makes his own preference for solitude clear, a web of a supportive community exists to shelter them all. No one is left out. Such a beautiful and subtle message to leave young readers.
Written in a readable style nicely chunked to encourage even reluctant readers, this book also makes a perfect classroom read-aloud or evening bedtime book. How wonderful to know that this is the first book in a series. Having met all of these quirky, likeable characters I don’t want to say goodbye.
Johanna McKenna M.Ed., is an adjunct professor of education at Elms College specializing in social emotional learning and child development. She is a retired elementary school principal and curriculum coordinator. One of her favorite activities was starting faculty meetings by reading a children’s book. She is co-authoring a book, What You Think Is What You Get, with school psychologist, Kathy Casale M.Ed. on the effect of teacher cognitive patterns on response to behavioral challenges in the classroom.