Monday, August 29, 2011

Loser

I'm celebrating going back to school with a week of Middle Grade novel reviews. Hooray for teaching the sixth grade!

Jerry Spinelli creates subtle and amazing anti-bullying propaganda in Loser. I almost didn’t realize it was happening, so I am sure that my students wouldn’t either. Instead of diving in to Donald Zinkoff’s days as a middle school loser, Spinelli starts the story with Zinkoff’s first day of school. Over the course of 100 pages, the reader falls in love with Zinkoff—his sense of humor, optimism, kindness, and heart. Even though we know that he is the loser of the title, we wonder how it could be possible that everyone around him doesn’t feel the same way we do.
Loser is one of the best examples of “show, don’t tell” that I’ve come across. Sometimes the discussions of bullying that we have in school can fall on deaf ears. When literature is able to do some of the teaching for us, it is a gift. Maybe students will recognize Zinkoff’s uncontrollable laughter, poor penmanship, or clumsiness in a student they would be inclined to tease. Maybe they’ll see the desperation to be accepted in themselves. I’d like Zinkoff to become part of our school’s vernacular and integral to our campaign to ‘assume goodwill’. Spinelli’s loving characterization of Zinkoff makes the middle school bullies seem like the true losers.

It’s interesting that the Wikipedia page for Loser mentions that Zinkoff is autistic, yet I haven’t seen any other mentions of that anywhere else. I think not mentioning a reason for Zinkoff’s behavior is a better choice, so that he becomes more of an “everyman” who is more likely to be similar to someone in the reader’s community.
I always enjoy Jerry Spinelli’s novels. His simple sentences and short chapters encourage reluctant readers to get their eyes on more words and to press on to read one more chapter. His heroes are usually outcasts and his themes are clear, but not cloyingly moralizing. The cover and title of Loser had never appealed to me, but I am so happy that I finally decided to read it.

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