Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

by Gordon Korman

Talented quarterback Marcus Jordan, a transfer student, arrives at Aldrich High ready to challenge the star player, Troy Popovich. The Raiders are a tight-knit team poised for a repeat championship season, and the players, under tacit but palpable pressure from Troy, freeze Marcus out, denying him protection on the field and friendship off the field. Meanwhile, Troy’s on-again, off-again (currently off-again) girlfriend, head cheerleader Alyssa, is flirting with Marcus, who’s not putting up much resistance. Yes, this is the standard formula for any number of teen sports novels, but if you think you’ve read this one before, think again.

Marcus has been practicing alone in the park when a fifty-something guy arrives out of the blue and joins in like they’ve known each other all their lives. Charlie may be triple Marcus’s age, but he’s an indefatigable human battering ram, and under his tutelage Marcus discovers a genuine enthusiasm for smashmouth football. Forget the finesse of a well-thrown pass; the more punishment Charlie dishes out, the more Marcus relishes the “pop,” that moment of bone-jarring collision that can send a helmet flying across the field (or, this month, across the Bulletin cover). Charlie may have the stamina and moves of a younger man, but he exhibits some pretty juvenile behavior as well, taking off when he and Marcus accidentally crack a car window, pranking the sour-tempered local exterminator (in a hilarious scene that one trusts will not prove inspirational), and even leaving Marcus in misery when the boy dislocates his shoulder. It takes a while for Marcus to deduce the reason for these aberrant actions: his eccentric pal is Charlie Popovich, ex-NFL linebacker, once known as the King of Pop, and, incidentally, father of Troy. Troy and his family have been assiduously covering up the fact that Charlie suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s, probably brought on by multiple concussions suffered during his pro career. Once apprised of Charlie’s condition, Marcus evinces a better understanding of what Charlie needs than the Popoviches do, and when he learns that Charlie’s alma mater wants to induct him into their hall of fame, he tracks down one of Charlie’s old teammates and they whisk him off to the ceremony, against the explicit wishes of the family.

Korman masterfully plays this as a dark comedy. Charlie’s addled antics are certainly the occasion for gallows humor, and narrator Marcus is deft at drawing out the absurdity of his own situation—in Charlie’s mind, Marcus is his old highschool pal Mac. However, Korman limns Charlie himself with profound affection, allowing the reader glimpses of impishness, loyalty, and dedication to football that mask his disease and make him a beloved member of the community. Sports stories are supposed to elicit tears when the new kid makes the big play or the underdog team wallops the powerhouse, but it will take a pretty hard-hearted teen to suppress the sniffles at Charlie’s rare and heart-breaking moments of lucidity: addressing the college homecoming crowd, realizing he must be confined to a nursing home, and, having lost control of his life, taking death on his own terms.

There’s a cautionary message here on the dangers of successive head injuries, but it is so thoroughly integrated into the plot that no overt homiletics are necessary. Troy is so shattered by his father’s condition that he ultimately gives up the game, while Marcus, thoroughly addicted to the pop, sees in Charlie’s career a risk worth taking. While Korman may not be crusading to shut off the Saturday night lights, even the most bulletproof teen readers will find themselves confronted, however fleetingly, with the notion that today’s daring may result in tomorrow’s dementia.

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer



Cover image from Pop ©2009 by Number Seventeen, NY. Used by permission of Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins Publishers.

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This page was last updated on January 1, 2010.