This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults. It appears in volume 15.2.
Touchdown for Gordon Korman again! At first I thought Pop would speak only to a relatively narrow audience; it is, after all, primarily about the joy football players take in the brutal contact of their sport. Or is it? While the protagonist, Marcus Jordan, is an avid quarterback for whom “even [a] dislocated shoulder hadn’t dulled his longing for the crunch of physical contact” (92), football and associated issues are merely the front behind which the more poignant drama of the novel plays out.
From a chance meeting at a local park, Marcus begins a friendship with the retired football player Charlie Popovich, who teaches him to “anticipate the contact, analyze it, and make split second adjustments” (34), bringing out a “dimension of Marcus Jordan, Football Player, that he’d never even known was there” (93). But something about this new friend is inexplicable: Charlie behaves like a teenager at times, calls Marcus “Mac” consistently, and has a teen-aged son and daughter who watch over him like parents. When Marcus discovers the truth about Charlie’s career, and his affliction, he is certain that Charlie still feels pride in his past glory—even if he can’t remember what he had for breakfast. So Marcus goes against Charlie’s family’s wishes, putting Charlie’s safety at potential risk, to bring great happiness to his new friend’s confused existence. From Charlie and his family, Marcus ultimately learns not only how to play tough, how to commit himself wholeheartedly to the play, but also how to play smart, to avoid risks that could end his career, or his life.
This novel is not just for boys; the lessons Marcus learns extend far beyond the football field. Korman’s well-constructed characters provide a source of connection for any reader interested in the emotions we feel when faced with life’s joys and troubles, justices and injustices. Pop is a powerful human drama of family life, school life, love, death, and—least of all—football.