Red Zone Rivals (2014), by Eric Howling

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 20.2.

Howling - Red ZoneI don’t know much about football, but the opening scene of Eric Howling’s Red Zone Rivals seems to carry the excitement fans—and players—must feel during tense moments in the game. It certainly engages the reader sufficiently to carry us through meeting Quinn Brown, who doesn’t start out with a very attractive attitude. His hubris loses him the affection of his girlfriend, Emma, and we can see that he has some learning to do both on and off the field. Fortunately, Howling craftily leads Quinn into and through situations that ring true; the lessons he learns are solid and in keeping with the psychological space a high-school football star might find himself in.

Slightly stereotypically, Quinn is a great quarterback, but a lousy math student. When he finally accepts his need for a tutor, he is assigned to Walker, a new student with a limp and a brilliant mind. Quinn had previously taunted Walker for his limp but, conforming to narrative expectations, learns the truth of Walker’s injury as they bond over their math books. When Quinn gets in trouble for throwing the first punch in defending Walker against bullying by his rival quarterback, Luke, we begin to see the changes that losing Emma and knowing Walker have set in motion. And we begin to really like Quinn.

It is not easy to accept punishment for an action you know to be morally right, but Quinn must: and he does so respectfully. His ability to accept the consequence of his action—even when it seems unfair—opens him to accept the guidance their new coach gives and the self-discipline demanded of Walker’s tutoring. The lessons he learns are part of what we all hope our children will learn in high school, and one of the reasons some parents encourage their children in team sports: the adage “there is no ‘i’ in team,” of course; but more than that, lesson in maturity, ethical principles, and honourable behaviour. Quinn is rewarded not only by his rekindled relationship with Emma, and a growing friendship with Walker, but by knowing himself to have grown in the ways that matter.



Pop (2010), by Gordon Korman

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.