Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Born to Rock

by Gordon Korman

With great marks and a full scholarship to Harvard, Leo Caraway – an atypical teen who’s president of his school’s Young Republican club – seems to be on the fast track to success. But when he’s unfairly accused of cheating on an algebra test, he loses his scholarship and is blackballed by the Young Republicans. To top it off, he finds out that his biological father isn’t the man he’s always called Dad but a legendary punk rocker named King Maggot, lead singer in Purge, the angriest band in America.

Even though punk is definitely not Leo’s thing, he goes to King Maggot to ask for tuition money for Harvard and ends up spending the summer working for him as a roadie. In the process, Leo discovers that although he’s not punk rock’s heir apparent, he’s got a lot less Republican in him than he thought.

Gordon Korman takes on big issues here, such as the problematic roles that money, power, and financial success play in the lives of contemporary youth. His portrait of Leo is at its best when he offers readers a sense of the real teen lurking beneath the picture-perfect Young Republican façade that Leo’s created. Using the madcap comic style that’s become Korman’s trademark as a writer, he makes us laugh first and think later. It’s a great touch, for example, when Korman has Leo’s adoptive dad give up Wall Street for a smalltown hardware store, while Leo sees success only as big profits on the stock market. Korman’s portrait of Purge is both a homage to punk, an absolutely hilarious sendup of the way punk is seen by mainstream media, and a thoroughly realistic demystification of the mystique of touring with a popular band.

Born to Rock is a great deal of fun and Leo’s transformation will thoroughly satisfy teen readers, but the political fabric of the book is American. Leo’s Republicanism is an extremely important aspect of his drive to succeed – but might not resonate with Canadian readers, given that few Canadian high schools have a young Conservative (or Liberal or NDP, for that matter) club. Not for eight- to 12-year-old fans of Korman’s MacDonald Hall novels, this novel might interest readers of Mike Tanner’s Resurrection Blues.

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