________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 19 . . . . May 16, 2008


Break on Through.

Jill Murray.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2007.
233pp., pbk., $14.95.
ISBN 978-0-385-66490-5.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4


Without waiting to hear the answer, I dance back with sharp, angry toprock. I burn him with footwork. A smile spreads across his face, but what he doesn't know is, I'm not really battling him, I'm battling Sean - the calls he screened, the way he let his boys badmouth me behind my back, how he couldn't be bothered to find me here, except to fight with me, how he's so afraid of what people think he'd kill us off without even trying. I'm battling my parents and the stupid baby and the whole ridiculous idea of trying to fit in here in the first place. With each step, I'm fighting a lump that's welling up in my throat. I want to pound it into the ground, kick it out of myself and twist the whole school, the crowd that's gathering, my parents and myself into it until there's nothing left of any of us.

Led by Devin, the thickening crowd starts to cheer me on, and they have no idea what they're cheering for. The only one not cheering is Slasher. I notice her standing on the edge of the circle with her arms crossed, watching intently. I wonder for a second why she's not out back following Trashley, but then I push her out of my mind, and instead get it into my head that I'm going to do windmills.

I kick, turn, duck down to the ground and unleash a flurry of footwork, as if it's even possible to build more momentum than I already have. I swing my leg out -

Suddenly a hand clamps down on my shoulder. It happens so fast, I fall on my bad shoulder and land on the pavement before I even realize what's going on.


Fifteen-year-old Nadine has to face two difficult facts. Her mother is pregnant, and so she'll no longer be an only child once her new sister arrives. Because of this change, her parents announce they'll all be moving to Rivercrest, a suburb far away from everything Nadine has grown up with. Consequently, Nadine finds herself in a new school where neither staff nor students like her and where she's almost completely cut off from her boyfriend, Sean, and her breakdancing crew, Tha Rackit Klub.

     On the surface, this plot seems typical of a young adult novel, but Jill Murray takes readers beyond the expected. Nadine does go through the difficulty of making new friends and getting used to new surroundings, but, in the background, there is always breakdancing and her love of being a b-girl. Eventually this leads to Nadine's forming her own crew and reclaiming some of the life she feels she lost after the move.

     Murray has written a book with plenty of appeal for young readers, particularly girls. Nadine is never entirely likeable and retains an edge which can be cutting and sometimes downright rude. She finally does make new friends, but the path is not easy because she almost literally fights them all the way. Murray's female characters are gritty and realistic rather than soft and sweet.  Readers may never quite like or even understand Nadine, but her strength and willpower are admirable.

     The novel opens in Toronto's Parkdale, a downtown, ethnically mixed part of the city. Rivercrest does not actually exist and so represents the anonymous suburbs in many urban areas. Although definitely Toronto-centric, the characters and ideas in the book could be translated to many large Canadian cities with just a few alterations and a little imagination.

     Nadine's love is breakdancing, and it is this that keeps her sane and helps her eventually overcome all the upheavals in her life. Murray is, herself, a dancer who has tried breakdancing and has come to realize that her talent lies more as an author than a b-girl. That said, she knows a great deal about her subject, and so readers learn about many of the components of breakdancing, including for example, freezes, threading and windmills. As well, the culture is vividly described as Nadine talks about practices with her old crew, forming a new crew and preparing for a crew battle. We watch breakdancers in action, not only physically dancing but also playing all of the head games that go on before and during battles. For many readers, this will be a whole new world.

     Murray's female characters are strong and talented young women who have chosen breakdancing, a typically male domain, as their musical pursuit. Whether young female readers are interested or not in b-girls or even music, Murray's characters provide great examples, even role models, of young women attempting something important to them and breaking through (pardon the pun!) any barriers preventing them from reaching whatever goals they may have.     

     Break dancing is alive and well, and there are recent films and books on the subject as well as information available on the internet. Murray's novel could form part of an arts research project in this area since it is vivid and represents the culture of breakdancing so well. On the other hand, it is also a great read with interesting and thought-provoking situations and relationships with appeal for any young readers.

Highly Recommended.

Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French, lives in Ottawa where she has turned her love of travel into a new career as a travel consultant.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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