I admire talented people. I especially admire talented people who are good, which brings me to my dear friend Jerry Spinelli. I’ve never met the man. I’m not intimately familiar with the details of his biography, but I feel like I know him. Of course, I know him. I’ve read his books. I can therefore attest that Mr. Spinelli is both a gentleman and a poet.
I was well into my twenties, somewhere on the verge of law school, when I discovered his writings. My mother was a junior high school librarian at the time. She sent me a copy of Mr. Spinelli’s Newbery Medal winner, Maniac Magee. Even though the typical Jerry Spinelli reader is probably ten years old, my then soon-to-be lawyer self was charmed by the book. That should tell you something about my maturity level, both then and now.
Mr. Spinelli writes about nice people. He mostly writes about happy, functional families. His stories are gentle. I know what you’re asking yourself. What’s the fun in that? How do you squeeze any drama out of something so mundane? I might wonder the same thing too if I hadn’t experienced his books for myself. Let me assure you the conflict is real. His characters are usually kind-hearted people who need to grow. They have something to learn. That, as it turns out, is a marvelous recipe for a story.
The Spinelli book that’s stuck with me most all these years, the one I want to tell you about right now, is a little novel called Loser. It’s a book about a kid named Donald Zinkoff who doesn’t quite fit in. He wears a giraffe hat on the first day of school, for crying out loud. He’s goofy. He misinterprets social cues. He’s not fast, athletic, or cool. Instead, he’s good, and over the course of the book Donald Zinkoff learns to face his fears – and ultimately refuses to let the world label or define him. I like that. The message resonates with me in a way few books have.
The last eight pages of Loser might just be some of the finest prose I’ve ever read. No matter how many times I revisit it, that last chapter always gives me goosebumps. It makes me want to cry and cheer all at the same time.
I wrote a letter to Mr. Spinelli once. I told him Loser is one of my favorite books of any make, model, shape, or size. A few weeks later, I got a note back from him. He said it’s one of his favorites too.
I finished reading Loser to my kids last week. I hope they were listening. I hope they understood what Mr. Spinelli was trying to tell them. I hope they felt the beauty of his words because they were coming from a place of goodness, and the world right now could sure use more of that.
Chris lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Sara, and their six young children. He has a B.A. in print journalism from Brigham Young University and a J.D. from the University of Nebraska College of Law. Chris enjoys music by The Piano Guys, flying kites, and pumpkin pie. He also spent two years in the Dominican Republic without a pillow, but that’s a story for a different day.