Harper Collins, 2002 218 pgs
Realistic Fiction/School Story
Donald Zinkoff is in a class by himself. He (practically) never gets an "A", is horrible at sports, falls over his own feet, has no friends, is disorganized and messy, and doesn't appear to excel in anything. Through all this he is cheerful, happy, and always sees the bright side to a situation. Spinelli traces Zinkoff's school career from his first day of first grade through the middle of sixth. We see Zinkoff experience school life from the back of the classroom, because of his "Z" last name, with teachers both good and bad. We watch Zinkoff's struggle to make a friend, finally reaching out to a fellow outcast, only to be rejected by the end. Zinkoff's positive family life with baby sister Polly, patient mother, and postman father is supportive and Donald's saving grace. Field Day in fifth grade brings an all time low to Zinkoff, yet leads him to a friend in unexpected places. In fact, Zinkoff does make and sustain friendships, just not with his peers. Finally, after a fateful snowstorm in the middle of sixth grade Zinkoff disappears trying to find a lost child. Has this experience finally gained him the acceptance that he yearns for? And is it too late?
The success of Palacio's Wonder and the push towards anti-bullying both in the media and in the schools has brought Loser after more than ten years back to the forefront. Spinelli makes a compelling case for children to recognize and be kind to that goofy kid who sits in the back and who always seems to be alone. Donald Zinkoff is a well-developed one-of-a-kind character, who practically leaps off the page. For all of his flaws, he has a huge heart and compassion for folks who are generally overlooked. The reader can't resists caring about and rooting for Donald as the story unfolds. Not a lot happens plot-wise. The book is really a slice of life tracing Zinkoff's social journey during childhood, building up to a big crescendo/payoff at the end. Usually I do not like the endings of books, but I do like the ending of Loser. Spinelli keeps it open ended, yet hopeful, and gives the reader something to chew over before closing the book. It is a great choice for book discussion and classroom use. The book has substance, but is not too long, has wide margins, and large print, making it a great choice for reluctant readers. Kids will want to be Zinkoff's friend and will, perhaps, be inspired to talk to the loner who sits behind them in language arts.