A middle-grade boy’s football ambitions crash against a cancer diagnosis in this frank tale by NFL star Tim Green.
Unstoppable, by Tim Green. HarperCollins, 2012, 352 pages.
Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12
It doesn’t seem like life could be any worse for Harrison Johnson, a kid too big for his age and now in his fourth foster home—actually a Dickensian workhouse disguised as a dairy farm. His one dream is to play football, even though all he knows of football comes from clandestine glances at the TV over the shoulder of his foster dad. But then a dramatic turn of events puts him back in the foster-parent market, and he’s placed with the ideal mom and dad for a kid with gridiron dreams. Mrs. Wilson is a lawyer and Mr. Wilson is a teacher at the local high school . . . as well as the Junior Varsity football coach. Harrison is as much a dream-come-true for the coach as the other way around: a natural athlete with years of suppressed rage longing for legitimate expression. He finds it on the playing field and under the Thursday-night lights—but his career has barely begun when a grudge hit by a resentful teammate leads to a knee X-ray and a terrible discovery: Harrison has bone cancer. Coach is at a loss when it comes to hospital beds and rehab, so he calls in his best friend “the Major,” an amputee from the Gulf War.
Tim Green’s sports novels are top choices with boys everywhere, but Unstoppable is a departure for him–inspired, as he explains in the afterward, by his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Her journey to wellness, including painful adjustments in the life of their family, led Green to contemplate a new kind of courage and sportsmanship: one that doesn’t bask in bright lights but inches forward in thousands of deliberate choices. Harrison doesn’t climb steadily out of this deep pit, and anger and depression continually take the upper hand. So much so, a reader might want to say, “Get over it!” But then the reader would have to wonder if he would handle it any better. I like the way we’re not told what to think of Coach or the Major’s tough-guy methods or Mrs. Wilson’s motherly objections, and I like that it’s unclear at the end whether Harrison will reach his goal of playing football again. That’s because his character matters more than the game. The drawback is that God doesn’t play much of a role. The family prays at mealtimes and goes to church, but God is a cheerleader on the sidelines rather than an anchor to cling to in the stormy gale. Not a Christian novel, but as long as that’s understood (and it might be worthwhile to ask young readers what would make it a “Christian novel”), Unstoppable is an affecting story of what it means to “man up.”
Overall Rating: 4 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 4
- Literary value: 3.5
Categories: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Realistic Fiction, Sports, Character Values, Life Issues