What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that the main character is a good-hearted kid who endures cruel treatment from his classmates for being a "loser." The upside is that he's an utterly loveable hero, and there's so much to discuss here that a family, or a class, could spend days talking it over, which is why it's already a favorite with discussion groups.
What's the story?
Donald Zinkoff is Below Average, a condition that most adults would like to pretend doesn't exist, and that far too many children think applies most especially to themselves. He's not disabled, in danger, or orphaned; just clumsy, sloppy, not overly bright, and cheerfully clueless. He is, in the callous summation of his classmates, a Loser.
Spinelli follows him from early childhood through middle school. It is a story made up of small moments: going to work with his dad, trying (and failing) to make a best friend, answering questions in class, working up the nerve to go into the darkened basement. It's the story, in short, of a perfectly ordinary child.
Is it any good?
Few writers could pull this off -- a book with no villains, no heroes, and little real conflict, which is basically a child development text turned into a novel. Yet it's moving, funny, lyrical, and has powerful appeal for both children and adults. Jerry Spinelli gives his readers a careful, at times humorous, portrait of a kid who is only special to his family, and scatters penetrating insights into growing up along the way. Zinkoff's (no one calls him Donald except his teachers) mistakes and quirks are endearing, since we're seeing them from the inside. And his one real talent, a sunny disposition, keeps his life from seeming cruel when he's not picked for teams, when he's ridiculed and taunted, when he, in short, loses, again and again.
This type of story, of course, has been done often before, though rarely with Spinelli's wit and craft. And we all know the formula -- eventually there will be some great dramatic event, the hero will have his moment to shine, and everyone will realize that he's not a loser at all. But that doesn't happen here. There's a moment when it might, but it's not something a Zinkoff, or a real child, can pull off. And therein lies Spinelli's unusual point -- not that losers are really winners, or I'm ok, you're ok, but that the measuring sticks we chose may not be the only ones there are. And Spinelli has the courage to stick to his point right to the end -- no losers or winners, no heroes or villains, no happy endings or sad ones, just children, and their confusing ability occasionally to connect.
Families can talk about...
Families can talk about what it means to be human, and what it means to grow up.
It might also be fun to combine a discussion about the book with the screening of a movie about growing up, such as Wide Awake, or one about not growing up, such as Peter Pan.