Wink by Rob Harrell

Wink, a highly-praised novel for middle-graders, offers a realistic yet engaging look at coping with cancer.

Wink by Rob Harrell. Dial, 2020, 314 pages

Reading Level: Middle grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: ages 12-15

Ross Maloy’s summer was going along as usual when he suddenly developed an abnormal swelling above his left eye. Turns out, it’s a tumor. Turns out, it’s malignant. Turns out, Ross has to begin 7th grade with umpteen radiation treatments ahead of him and a host of gross side effects. These include a permanent squint, leaky eye goop, and mandated wide-brimmed hats to protect his ultra-sensitive vision. And oh yes, he might go blind. Or even die. All this is a real downer, but Ross possesses a sharp sense of humor and observation skills that allow him to tell an engrossing story. His cartoon character, “Batpig,” also allows him to interpret his experiences through occasional comic pages where his alter ego battles symbolic antagonists. Ross’s cancer gives an especially painful spin to typical middle-school drama, wherein best friends become former friends, antagonists become allies, and idols take a plunge into the Valley of Disenchantment. Ross experiences some very dark moments but never loses his sense of humor; readers, once hooked, will stay with him all the way to final, almost literal breakthrough.

Author Rob Harrell also experienced eye cancer as a 7th-grader, so Ross’s trials are absolutely authentic. They teach him that life is a gift to be cherished, though sometimes, as one character observes, “it can be hard as hell.” There’s no getting rid of hard things, but there’s more to life than hard things. There’s music, for instance: through one of his radiation techs, Ross learns to play guitar and expands his musical taste exponentially (heavy metal is the style that best suits his mood). There’s no spiritual dimension to his suffering and resolution, and thus no true resolution. But readers can appreciate the gritty reality of this particular trial, and the triumph of coming out on the other side of it.

Overall Rating: 3.75 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.5
  • Artistic/literary value: 4

Considerations:

  • There are a couple instances of misuse of God’s name, including an exclamation of Jesus’ name under extreme shock. Also some mild vulgarities and the f-word indicated by symbols.

More at Redeemed Reader:

  • Her Own Two Feet is the inspiring true story of overcoming a severe birth defect—see our starred review.
  • The Goodbye Cancer Garden, a picture book about a mother undergoing treatment for breast cancer, uses gardening as a metaphor for hanging on through the hard times and finding new hope in creation. (Also, see Emily’s list of 5 picture books that effectively deal with the death of a loved one.)
  • Ross’s story ends positively, but the specter of death haunts him at times. Read our reviews of two YA novels that take on the subject of death: “Far As the Curse Is Found.

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Janie

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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