Unbroken (The Young Adult Adaptation): An Olympian's Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Unbroken (The Young Adult Adaptation): An Olympian's Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive Book Poster Image
Popular with kids
YA version of POW bio is a poignant tale of perseverance.

Parents say

age 15+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 10 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers will learn a great deal about historical events such as the 1936 Olympics, World War II (particularly the war in the Pacific), and the nature of Japan's involvement in the war and how it treated its enemy captives. Mature readers also will pick up on the way Italian-Americans were treated in California in the 1930s.

Positive Messages

Pete Zamperini teaches little brother Louie that "if you can take it, you can make it" and that "a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory." In other words, Pete's encouragement helps Louie to run past the pain and commit himself to his goal -- whether it's the finish line or surviving the POW camp. Louis Zamperini's discipline and determination leads him to the Olympics and later to survive being stranded at sea and then being a POW. Despite unbelievable odds against him, Louis triumphs time and time again -- to run that last lap, to live another day, to survive under horrifying circumstances.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Louis Zamperini survives unthinkable conditions because he learns to live by the code his brother Pete taught him: to embrace pain and concentrate on the finish line, to stay focused, and never to doubt his ability to win. Louie is who he is because of his older brother Pete, and their relationship is remarkable. Louie and his best friend, fellow soldier Phil, keep each other alive and engaged, even as their third friend deteriorates. Many of the soldiers Louie befriends at the POW camp refuse to give up. Louis remembers after returning home that he made a promise to God to stay faithful if he survived.


Intense wartime violence includes a description of crewmen dying in plane crashes, from starvation, and by execution. The book describes the Rape of Nanking; the way the Japanese would routinely kill all enemy captives; and the way Japanese guards humiliated, beat, and tortured prisoners. Three soldiers stuck on a raft in the ocean kill animals with their bare hands. Some prisoners have lost fingernails and are permanently injured from their experiences in Japanese camps. There are a few graphic photos of emaciated prisoners and even dead soldiers.


Louie loves girls and actually starts running because he thinks it will improve his chances with them. Some of Louie's fellow soldiers discuss their wives, fiancées, and girlfriends back home and how much they miss seeing and kissing them.


Kids hurl Italian slurs at Louie when he's younger. The Japanese soldiers constantly insult the prisoners, and Louie's told he's "nothing" and an "enemy." The soldiers have nicknames for their cruel captives. Uses of "damn," "ass," "jackass."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

As was more common in that decade, Louie smokes cigarettes and drinks alcohol from a young age (he looks about 12). After Louie returns home, he slowly becomes an alcoholic who needs to drink to dull the ache of his horrible memories and his post-traumatic stress. He remains an alcoholic for years until he attends a Billy Graham revival with his wife and dedicates his life to God.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Unbroken  is the young-adult adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's acclaimed biography of Olympic runner-turned-POW Louis Zamperini, which was made into a 2014 movie. It is incredibly detailed and doesn't skimp on the intense violence, torture, and cruelty Zamperini survived during his time as a Japanese prisoner during World War II. The YA version is roughly half the length of the original and excludes some of the most traumatic episodes and details about Zamerpini's ordeal (and doesn't linger too long on his postwar alcoholicism). Yet it remains detailed enough to be too disturbing for elementary school kids. Middle schoolers who are aware of World War II or are studying it in school are an ideal readership for this well-edited adaptation. Older high schoolers, of course, could read Hillenbrand's adult bestseller.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byDarian B. April 2, 2018

Needed for Middle School Students

This book is not just appropriate but needed for middle school students. It's violence is within context and presented in a way that will grow empathy and... Continue reading
Adult Written byKaren B. February 21, 2018

violence too graphic

We got to a certain point in this book and the description of the violence was too much for me (an adult) and my 13 year old son. We didn't finish it. I t... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byMayberry June 13, 2018


This book is the best non-fiction book I've ever read. Trust me that says a lot because I read a lot of books. I generally like to read fiction books, not... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written bybooknerd21 March 1, 2015

Intense and raw

It is filled with torture and violence. In the midst of that is an amazing storyline which carries the book all the way. 12 and older are ok to read this book.

What's the story?

UNBROKEN is the young-adult adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling biography of Louis Zamperini, an Italian-American from Southern California who went from high school track star to Olympic runner to World War II bombardier to Japanese POW camp survivor. The son of Italian immigrants, Zamperini was known as a young petty criminal in his hometown of Torrance. But as a young teen, big brother Pete convinced him to take up running, and he quickly became a track star and, at age 19, the youngest American qualifier for the 5,000-meter race at the 1936 Olympic Games. He had planned to run in the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, which were canceled after World War II began. As a bombardier assigned to the Pacific Theater, Zamperini, 26, ended up on a bomber plane that crashed into the ocean, stranding him and the only two other survivors in the open sea. After enduring 47 days on a life raft, an emaciated Zamp and his pilot friend Phil are rescued -- by the Japanese, who send them to a series of POW camps where Zamperini endures cruelty, humiliation, deprivation, and more at the hands of the ruthless prison guards, particularly the sadistic "Bird."

Is it any good?

Hillenbrand's nonfiction narrative is compelling and educational. An inspiring and chilling account of an extraordinary man, Unbroken is a perfect nonfiction book for middle schoolers interested in war stories, history, running, and incredible feats of bravery and perseverance. It's particularly powerful as a comparison to stories about Japanese internment or the Holocaust. Unlike other WWII narratives in which American soldiers are liberators and heroes, here Zamp and his friends are just struggling to survive another day.

What's great about Hillenbrand's YA adaptation is that, although the movie focuses primarily on Zamperini's time as a POW, the book also delves into his life as a boy, a teen, a runner and Olympic hopeful, and later as a traumatized veteran who can't shake the nightmare of his time in the camp until he's saved by his faith and family. Although the subject matter is occasionally quite intense (even for an adult reader), it's told in clear, easy-to-read prose that never goes stale. The photos are particularly poignant, showing snapshots of everything from Zamperini's childhood and family to the various bomber planes of the era to the emaciated American soldiers who survived Japanese POW camps. As nonfiction historical biographies go, this one is ideal for parents to read along with their tweens/teens.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence described in Unbroken. Do you think it's different to read about war and violence than to see it on screen?

  • Does reading the book make you want to see the movie? What do you expect from the film adaptation?

  • What do you think kept Zamperini determined to live, despite all the unthinkable circumstances he faced? Why do you think the Bird was such a sadist? Do you think you could have mustered the strength and faith to survive like Louie?

  • Discuss the people who helped Louis Zamperini learn to survive and overcome pain. How do those key relationships shape and change him?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history and World War II

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