Unbroken (The Young Adult Adaptation): An Olympian's Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
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.
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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?
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