Book Review: The Misfits

by James Howe
Reading level: Grades 6–8

Lardo. Beanpole. Freak. Tinkerbell. Queer. Slimeball. Wop. Brains. Fairy. Fat Boy. Loser.

Do these epithets define the people at whom they are aimed? Seventh grader Bobby Goodspeed and his group of “misfit” friends think not. In a bid for student council leadership, the friends underscore their broader platform for freedom and liberty for all with a more specific campaign promise: no more name-calling among students; along with a somber slogan: “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will break our spirit.”

The poignancy of their effort is balanced with a bright-eyed, brutally honest self-knowledge in each protagonist, as well as wickedly funny dialogue that will have readers guffawing out loud. Still, the message comes across loud and clear and in all seriousness. Name-calling hurts. Those on the receiving end often wind up believing that they are the names they are called.

Bobby and his pals display a maturity that belies their years and middle school social status. This maturity allows them those expressions of self-deprecating humor. It also enables them to move forward in their cause despite the obstacles put in their way by uncomfortable teachers and status-quo-seeking fellow students. Luckily, there are enough understanding adults and other students, popular and otherwise, that the No-Name Party gets the support it needs to take the campaign all the way to the school auditorium on election day.

James Howe's brilliant novel has done more than tickle readers' funny bones and provide food for thought for individuals. Sparked by the book's message, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing formed the No Name-Calling Week Coalition.

Each year the coalition organizes a week of educational activities aimed at ending name-calling and providing schools with the tools and inspiration to launch an ongoing dialogue about ways to eliminate bullying in their communities. In 2008, No Name-Calling Week is January 21–25. Consider assigning the book in November and participating in January.

Social and Emotional Lessons in The Misfits

Middle school teachers of the Second Step program face unique challenges with their students, who are emerging from childhood but have a long way to go to adulthood. The Misfits is an excellent choice of supplemental reading for sensitive teachers who can guide their older readers in discussions about identity, empathy, and bullying. The group of friends in the book also exercise their problem-solving skills every step of the way, often having to back up and try again when one solution doesn't work. Best friends for years, the four “misfits” offer each other nonstop support and love regardless of the kinds of descriptors others try to pin on them.

Note: The friends discuss sexual orientation/identity in the book, as one boy comes to terms with the fact that he is gay. Although the conversations are not sexually explicit, a mature handling of the subject will be required.

Emilie Coulter
Book Reviewer
Committee for Children