Cover of The Unstoppable Flying Flanagan novel - text and small image of girl kicking a footy and a Japanese plane flying above. Alongside a footy oval with goal posts and a seat behind the goals

The Unstoppable Flying Flanagan – Felice Arena (A Teacher’s Review)

One of my fondest memories of primary school was sitting at the feet of our library teacher as she took us on a magical, mesmerising journey into the worlds of J.R.R Tolkien. 

It’s a memory that’s come back into my consciousness – as I read The Unstoppable Flying Flanagan by Felice Arena – to my class. 

I first heard about this wonderful book – that focuses on footy-mad Maggie Flanagan and her singing, dancing best friend Gerald –  in a podcast chat between Nicole Hayes (from the must-listen Outer Sanctum podcast) and author, Felice Arena. I thought it would strike a chord with my sporty students. And it has.

Set during the 2nd World War, it has provided my students with insight into worlds and attitudes that they often find nonsensical, unfair and not right. Sexism, racism, and homophobia are regularly exercised in the lives of the novel’s main characters, Maggie, Gerald and Elena. 

  • What (cue horrified looks)? Girls or women can’t play contact sports?
  • What? Girls or women aren’t allowed to …?
  • What? People say or think those things about girls or women or boys?
  • What  – as they hear about the racism metred out to Elena’s family.

We’re keeping a record of what was said and done then versus nowadays. Also:

  • how do the characters come back or respond to the bigoted ideas and thinking?
  • how could we respond to these bigoted comments?
  • what strategies work and why?
  • what’s changed since then and why?

There’s also the constant challenges to traditional gender roles. Maggie and Gerald regularly meet women who are taking on the jobs that men (who are away fighting in the war) traditionally held like delivering ice and milk around the city. 

  • How do these women help to shift attitudes about women and their skills and capabilities?

What also resonates – with my class – is…

The action packed radio commentary – where Maggie is inevitably starring in a footy match. It’s a real hit with my students. And it’s a real joy to read aloud. 

The bumps and crashes involving Maggie and the school’s bully.

The ‘110% take on life’ attitude of Maggie – with often funny consequences.

The witty, cutting come-back lines of Maggie. They garner a huge laugh from my students. 

Gerald just being Gerald – regardless of the nastiness directed his way. I’m imagining him as the lead  in a sequel novel. 

The refusal of Maggie and Gerald to buckle or give in to bigotry and injustices, refusing to be anything less than their fabulous selves, inspiring others not to hide who they are. 

Then there’s the ongoing challenge, that we’ve all bought into…

Maggie’s dream of staging an all-female charity football match to raise funds for the troops.

Each time Maggie meets a girl or woman she’s sizing them up as potential footy players for her teams. We’re all keeping a record of the girls and women that Maggie ropes into playing to see if she can succeed in putting together two teams.

Maggie never loses sight of her dream, no matter the ridicule, punishment or obstacles placed in her path. It makes no sense to her, that females should be treated less favourably than males. In this respect, Maggie although living in the 1940s, is someone my students can readily relate to. Similarly, the abuse that Gerald cops, is seen as totally wrong by my students, who have much more expansive views views of what a boy can do or like nowadays.

And then there’s the challenges of today…

One of my AFL playing students inspired by Maggie is creating a footy PowerPoint. She proudly shows it to me. I comment that there’s no female players in any of the slides. “I couldn’t find any,” she says. I  Google search ‘AFL’ and yes there’s next to no photos of female players.

A number of students are writing persuasive texts about why female AFL players should be paid the same as their male counterparts. Two girls who play AFL themselves are mounting the argument that the women are just as strong and tough as the men. Their example is a male player, Max Gawn from the Melbourne Football Club. When I quiz them on this, they say that’s who they know. They don’t know any AFLW players by name. 

It turns out that they know more about Maggie Flanagan, a fictional character, than actual women playing AFL at the highest level in Australia. 

More from Felice Arena

Further Listening and Reading

  • Check out my Making Sports Inclusive page – for more listening and resources.
  • Listen to Nicole Hayes and Kate Seear chat to me – about how to make Football more welcoming.