Marvin Redpost Super Fast, Out of Control
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Format: Paperback, 79 pages
Interest Level: Second and Third Grade, but great material for discussion for grades three to five
Review by Terry Northcutt, Ph.D.
Marvin Redpost, the main character in Louis Sachar’s Marvin Redpost Super Fast Out of Control, has a problem. And this problem is one that will promote rich discussions for readers in third, fourth, and fifth grade.
Readers will quickly realize that Marvin's problem is not one with a variety of good solutions with potentially good outcomes, No, It is a dilemma, one of those predicaments that no matter what he decides results in equally problematic outcomes.
Yet the dilemma began as a small, easily resolved problem: a new bike that Marvin was afraid to ride because it was bigger than his old bike and had hand brakes and gears he didn’t know how to work. As adults we know that the problem of not knowing how to ride the bike and its associated fear could easily have been resolved if he had asked for some help from his father or brother then practiced a bit. But it is hard for anyone at any age to acknowledge fear sometimes, but especially for a young boy in third grade.
So, he chose to solve the problem and to cope with his fear by avoidance. He simply did not ride the bike. This worked well for about ten days. Then on a Saturday when Marvin and his friends Nick and Stuart were having difficulty thinking of something to do, Nick suggested they ride their bikes down Suicide Hill and Stuart agreed.
Marvin, of course, did not want to ride his bike, especially not down Suicide Hill. To save face with his friends, he again decided to solve the problem and cope with his fear by avoidance. His sister, Linzy, had been pestering the boys to play unicorns with her. Marvin yelled at her and called her a stupid pest. When she told their mother, Marvin refused to apologize. He was grounded for a week. Problem solved—maybe.
Unfortunately, by the end of the school day on Monday, a rumor, initiated by Stuart, had spread throughout the school: Marvin would ride his bike down Suicide Hill on Saturday at noon. Marvin expecting everyone at his school to be at the hill is now faced with a dilemma: be labeled a chicken if he does not ride down the hill or the possibility of physical injury if he does ride down the hill.
Readers join Marvin as he agonizes about what to do. He asks his mother if he can ride down the hill hoping she will say no. Unfortunately, she grants permission. Two incidents during the week suggest solutions but ultimately result in confusion. When his sister becomes afraid of a thunderstorm, his father tells her that the thunder can’t hurt her. He tries to help her differentiate between the fear inside her head and the fear of the thunderstorm that is outside. She is safe in the house. He advises her to stand up to the storm by saying, " I’m not afraid of you."
Later in the week, Officer Watson comes to Marvin's school to talk about illegal drugs. She says that if your friends call you chicken when you won’t take drugs that’s not being scared like a chicken. It’s being smart and brave because it takes a lot of courage to say no to your friends. Putting these two incidents together, Marvin wonders whether he should look his fear in the eye and ride down the hill or say no to riding down the hill because it’s stupid like taking drugs.
In the end Marvin rides his bike to the hill. Only his family is there to meet him. He realizes that while he has spent the week agonizing about what everyone thought, no one really cared. Marvin chooses to ride down the hill because it is something he wants to do. Sachar makes the ride sufficiently scary to justify the misery of Marvin’s dilemma and the danger associated with the hill.
Surprisingly, this is a seventy-nine page beginning chapter book with a medium-sized font, short chapters and one or two black and white illustrations per chapter. In terms of reading level, it falls somewhere between the end of second grade and the middle of third grade. However, in terms of content, it is rich with discussion possibilities for fourth and fifth grade readers:
When should you stand up to fear and face it?
When is fear a sign that something is truly dangerous and an unnecessary or foolish risk even if others label you a chicken for not doing it?
When should you say you’re afraid of something?
How do you know who is safe to tell about your fears?
What happens when you avoid problems? What happens when you don’t ask for help?