by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
As I think about Sophie Rae, the newest member of our family, I hope she will have a friend like Donald Zinkoff.
A friend who would share his shiny new trophy when she’s feeling down, who knows how to laugh and always sees the bright side of things, and who would go looking for Sophie if she went missing in a blizzard. And I hope she would aspire to be the same caliber of friend to him.
But of course, you don’t have to always self-sacrifice and be enthusiastic to a fault to be a good friend.
As I was reading Loser and imagining Sophie’s life with Zinkoff as a best buddy, I couldn’t help but think that the qualities that make Zinkoff such a good person have less to do with his sacrifices and more to do with his heart.
When Zinkoff ventures off into the blizzard to look for his friend Claudia, he ends up nearly freezing to death. It wasn’t the risk he takes that makes him an amazing person—it was his empathetic and kind intentions. If Sophie were ever lost in a blizzard, I would hope that her friends would be as unrelenting as Zinkoff in their search...hopefully from the safety of a warm car with cell phone access so they could hear when she’s been found.
In another instance, Zinkoff brings his beloved three-foot-tall giraffe hat to school that his dad bought for him at the zoo. But at recess, an older kid gets his hands on it, claims the hat as his own, throws it on the ground, and walks all over it, hoping to torment Zinkoff. And yet, Zinkoff gives his bully the benefit of the doubt—he puts his own attachment to the hat aside because he wants to make the older kid happy. He even picks up the hat and throws it on the ground a second time—just in case the older boy would get pleasure out of stomping on it again. If Sophie Rae were ever in a terrible mood and her friends thought she wanted to destroy their hat in order to feel better, I would hope that they would care enough to ask her what’s really wrong, but also be firm in saying, “No, you cannot ruin my hat.”
That kind of nuance—that we should always be kind to others, but not always at the expense of ourselves and our boundaries—is so hard to teach...and so important for young readers to learn.
I’ve come to love—and read and reread and read aloud—books by my friend Jerry Spinelli for that exact reason: that he never waters down complicated relationship dynamics, which gives students and teachers an opportunity to open up accessible dialogues about difficult topics.
Jerry has said on many occasions that, in most ways, Zinkoff is the exact opposite of who he was in middle school. Jerry was a popular, intelligent athlete—the type of kid who society most typically calls a “winner.” (It seems as though he was more like Jeffrey Magee, the charismatic protagonist of his Newbery Medal–winning 1990 novel, Maniac Magee.)
But over the course of Jerry’s life, he came to understand that the definition of a “winner” is much more complicated than that. And so, in 2002, he jumped into Zinkoff’s shoes—and maybe his giraffe hat too—to write Loser.
“A masterful character portrait; here’s one loser who will win plenty of hearts.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Loser follows a boy named Donald Zinkoff from first grade to middle school. Most kids aren’t bothered by him at all until his boundless (and sometimes awkward) energy begins taking up more space in class and around the neighborhood.
As Jerry put it in his (amazing) Behind the Scenes interview this week:
“Zinkoff is identified as a ‘loser’ by his schoolmates, who are seduced by society’s obsession for being number one, when in fact, in the game of life, he is quite the opposite—a winner.”
In my mind, when I hear the word “winner” in this context, I think “good person.” The Book Boys interpreted it similarly in their video this week in which Allister leads Max and Elliott in a conversation about what qualities they believe make Zinkoff a “hero.”
For decades, my friend and colleague David Vozar has been just the kind of friend to me that Zinkoff is (and the kind of friend I hope Sophie Rae finds in her life). After reading Loser, David reflected on how he felt when he was Zinkoff’s age—a kid just about to go into middle school.
We crafted many resources, videos, and activities—all free, as always!—to help you and your students as you read Loser together this week:
• Donning his Zinkoff-inspired giraffe hat, Allister leads the Book Boys in a thoughtful conversation about what qualities make Zinkoff a hero.
• In her Book Talks teacher review video, fifth grade teacher Angela Reina shares how she uses Loser in her class to explore the unique character dynamics and Zinkoff’s many relationships through creative writing activities, a vision board, and text-to-self connections. Plus she says Loser was her first Jerry Spinelli read, but it won’t be her last!
• Jerry Spinelli gives us a Behind the Scenes interview about what went into Loser and his journey as a writer.
• Download a free printable discussion guide and an activity sheet in Cooked Up from a Book that encourages students to write email correspondences as characters from the book. Both are inspired and approved by Angela!
After rereading Loser all these years after it was first published, I’ve come to the conclusion that we could all use a little more Zinkoff in our lives, whether that’s on our bookshelves or in our friendships. Please share Loser with the readers in your life and let me know what they think—reach out to me anytime at email@example.com.