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Book Review

Ross Maloy just wants to be a normal kid who makes it through seventh grade as best he can—hoping to hang out with best friends, avoid a bully and quietly crush on the prettiest girl in school. But then he finds out he has a rare kind of eye cancer. He becomes the “cancer kid” who has to get radiation blasts, wear a goofy hat and walk around with a semi-permanent right-eye wink. Well, so much for normal.

Plot Summary

They say a good story will let you see things through the eyes of its central characters. But Ross Maloy can’t give you that point of view. He’s only got one eye to share.

As his story starts out, 12-year-old Ross is strapped to a steel table with a giant ray gun contraption aimed at his offending right eye. It seems that he has a rare cancer there that popped up out of the blue. 

Ross is getting his first of forty-five proton radiation zaps that will steal away any hopes of navigating seventh grade normally. Instead of hanging with best buds Abby and Isaac, avoiding a bully and crushing on the school’s prettiest and coolest girl, he’ll be transformed into a goofy hat-wearing, hair-losing, goopy ointment-covered sideshow with a perpetual wink. And to top it off, there’s a new crop of bullies afoot, too: anonymous kids who create and spread terrible memes throughout the middle school, dubbing Ross the “cancer cowboy.”

Yeah, nice and normal are things of the past.

But there’s good to be found here as well. It’s not all angry outbursts and woe-is-me sadness. (Though, Ross has those days. I mean wouldn’t you get a little ticked off if all this happened to you?) Ross also meets people who open his … eye to different ways of thinking, communicating, feeling. He starts funneling his emotions into learning to play a guitar. He sets new goals. He uses his Batpig drawings to navigate things that are hard to put into words.

Life can be difficult sometimes, and normal is probably a fantasy for any middle schooler. But Ross slowly comes to see that with all the struggle, all the losing, there’s finding, too. And sometimes the most obnoxious things can end up being oddly funny if you squint your eyes and look at it just the right way. (Ross certainly has that covered.) After all, laughter is the best kind of medicine.

Christian Beliefs

No faith elements here other than someone calling out “Thank God.” Ross’ best friend Abby, however, wonders if Ross is going to become a youth minister when he starts learning to play guitar. 

Other Belief Systems

Ross’ radiation tech, Frank, has a belief that music can be very healing, for your emotional well-being if nothing else. And in a sense, that’s proven true as Ross determinedly funnels his feelings and energies into learning to play the guitar—finding a great deal of release and joy with the instrument. Music even helps forge a bond between Ross and a large, bully-like guy who Ross once had run-ins with.

Authority Roles

Without question, Ross’ dad and stepmom are loving and supportive. They both repeatedly express their love for him and their pride in how he’s handling the tough things. Ross’ biological mom died from cancer when Ross was five. And that sad fact forges an even stronger bond between he and his parents during Ross’ fearful ordeal. Frank (who also plays with a local rock group) is a very solid role model for Ross, too. After Ross expresses an interest in playing guitar, Frank agrees to help out. And he encourages Ross in everything from playing his instrument to starting his own small band to play in a talent show at school.

Ross also meets an elderly cancer victim, Jerry, who gives Ross some insights into taking the blows of cancer, and life, in stride. In his gravel-voiced way, Jerry also helps lighten the mood while in the hospital waiting room. The two form an unexpected friendship.

Profanity & Violence

During a moment of great shock, someone cries out Jesus’ name. In the school world, there is some name calling in the likes of “jerk” and “butt-crack.” (Ross also tells a friend that after his radiation treatment he can “shoot laser beams out my butt.”) And in a couple of instances, symbols ($%#@&!) are substituted into the dialogue in place of harsh crudities.

At one point Ross and a large guy at school get into a fight. Ross hits the boy in the neck with a book while in a rage and the larger kid grabs Ross by the collar and cuffs him upside the head several times. A teacher rushes in to stop the fight and she slips and falls to the ground.

By far, however, the cancer and its physical effects are the most violent and scary parts of Ross’ story. We hear of the pain Ross feels, the surgery, and the cracked and bloody skin that the radiation treatments cause, along with some hair loss situations that cause Ross great embarrassment. On top of all that, some kids start passing around hurtful text memes focused on Ross—all are cruel, but two deal with Ross’ supposed impending death. We see how something that foolish and unkind negatively impacts Ross and his family. (In the context of young readers, this incident can easily be used as a cautionary lesson.)

Early on, however, a doctor talks of having to remove one of Ross’s eyes and eye socket, and other physical necessities because of how aggressive the cancer is. That alone is a jarring moment for Ross and young readers. Fortunately, a consultation with another doctor opens up some far better procedures.

Ross’ dad admits that he drank too much for a while after Ross’ mom died. An adult gets a beer out of someone’s fridge.

Sexual Content

Ross admits that a young girl in his class makes him go “all gooey.” “Blame puberty,” he notes.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for other books at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Ross goes through some incredibly scary things during his struggle with cancer. Did that help you understand some difficult things that a friend may be going through? If something horrible like this happened to you or someone you care about, how do you think you’d handle it? Would your faith and belief in God make a difference? What does the Bible say about painful struggles like this?

When the kids at school spread the hurtful memes about Ross, do you think they were trying to be mean? Even if they thought it was just funny, what kind of pain did it cause for Ross and his friends? How important was Abby during Ross’ ordeal? Do you think she made a difference? How about Isaac, what impact did his choices have?

This book also talks about forming friendships with people you don’t like. What made the difference for Ross and Jerry? How does any of that apply to kids at your school?

When you have a sad or angry day, is there anything you can do to lighten your mood? And what about sad things you have no control over? Where do you go to find encouragement when you’re at your lowest point? Do you think talking helps?

Additional Comments

A story about a kid dealing with cancer, may sound like it could be difficult for readers of any age. But author Rob Harrell, who went through his own version of protagonist Ross’ struggle, is able to craft a book that is in equal measures insightful, heartfelt, encouraging and funny. Harrell doesn’t sugarcoat the gravity of Ross’s cancer, but he doesn’t make it an anguish either. He lets his characters rage, weep and smile. And though there’s no element of faith in this tale, there is a strong current of love and friendship that carry the story to its conclusion.  

You can request a review of a title you can’t find at [email protected].

Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not necessarily their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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