I know it will be unpopular for me to make this first admission: Andrew Clements’ books are really hit or miss for me. I know that younger readers enjoy them–his work is sought after in school libraries all the time–but they just don’t usually hit the mark for me. Sometimes I find them too affectedly juvenile for even young readers or plots that I don’t find terribly interesting. Given this opinion, I was less than thrilled to see The Losers Club show up on the 2020 Maud Hart Lovelace nominees list. I made a deal with myself that I would try and read it but if it didn’t hold my interest I would allow myself to put it aside and choose something else.
The reason I give this backstory at the beginning of the review is because The Losers Club was much more than I expected. It was a quick read for me because it held my attention with both its characters and its subject matter in a much deeper way than I had anticipated. I really enjoyed this book; it was a solid 4/5 stars for me–which I did not expect.
The main character, Alec, has been a 6th grader for just 45 minutes when we first meet him, sitting on the ‘Hot Seat’ outside the Principal’s office. He has been sent there by his teacher for reading during class:
It wasn’t about what he was reading or how he was reading–it was always because of where and when he was reading.
Since this has been an ongoing problem at school the Principal informs Alec that unless he changes his behavior in class she will require him to spend six weeks in a study skills program over the summer. Appalled at the idea of summer school, Alec’s struggle begins with how to balance his extraordinary passion for reading with his responsibilities as a student. Desperate to find a space to be left alone and read , Alec starts a new Club in the Extended Day Program after school. Looking for a partner (which he needs to establish his club) Alec meets Nina, a new student at school. He discovers both that they share a love of books and that he wishes she might see him as more than a friend. Navigating the complicated (sometimes brutal) world of 6th grade social relationships leads Alec to seek advice from his father, problem-solve creatively and come to a new, deeper understanding of what books truly are and how they can be an integral part of his life without usurping it completely.
So much of the way Alec talks about books and reading will be familiar to other bookish readers (like me!)–young or old. When he talks about his ‘comfort books’ and how reading offers him the opportunity to step away from reality for awhile and be transported into other places, circumstances and lives I knew exactly what he meant, as I have felt it too. Alec finds himself at a crossroads when he realizes that although books offer him infinite possibilities in his imagination, they cannot insulate him completely from the struggles of reality:
Just a few months ago, he had been able to jump into a new book, land with both feet, and be perfectly happy there for hours–even days at a time. There was an endless number of good books, and he had been totally content to hop from book to book, each one like a stepping-stone, leading him across a rushing river, so that his feet never got wet. But now the river had risen, and the river was his life, and he felt like he was drowning.
His gradual understanding that sometimes he needs to stay engaged in what’s going on around him and use what he gleans from books in concert with his own ingenuity to forge his way ahead and fill his own life is a powerful moment:
Even Charlotte’s Web seemed odd now. He used to love the funny parts. and they still made him smile, but mostly the book made him think about real life and about his family. Fern’s brother, Avery? He always reminded Alec of Luke now. And the farm and the barnyard and the fair? It was all different. The book made him think about all the changes that can’t be stopped, like the seasons, and growing up, and even death. And the story made him think about friendship–real friendship.
Alec’s deeper understanding of reading is accomplished brilliantly through his interactions with his parents, his younger brother and his peers. Clements has done a remarkable job of mapping out a way to take in information from different sources, reflect on it and allow it to shape your behavior in a new–and, ostensibly, more constructive–way. Only a truly passionate reader could have created such a vibrantly three-dimensional character as Alec and Clements includes a reading list at the end of the book with every title mentioned during the narrative–many of which he says are his favorites.
Alec’s genuine voice is the biggest asset of the book. However, the fully developed characters of his father and fellow students Nina and Kent make the story feel complete. In particular Clements creates in Kent a character who is not simply a one-dimensional ‘villain’ for Alec, but a fully rounded human being who makes both good and not-so-good choices about his own behavior. The Losers Club uses Alec’s passion for reading to first separate story and reality, and then show how they intertwine to make us all grow stronger and become more fully ourselves.
The Losers Club is a great read-aloud in a middle grade classroom or an excellent independent reading choice–particularly for kids who are like I was and LOVE books!