The Misfits by James Howe
I don’t know how many more of these reviews I can write, guys. The bad books in my children and young adult literature course are all bad in exactly the same ways; it’s downright disheartening. No wonder I was reading American Gods at thirteen—which is certainly an educational experience, let me tell you that. Worse, The Misfits comes from James Howe, the gentleman who wrote the rather charming Bunnicula, a series concerning a vampiric bunny. And, as you may have gathered, it’s not good. (And making me think that Bunnicula hasn’t aged well at all…)
The Misfits follows a group of seventh-graders, all friends and, perhaps more importantly, all outcasts. Bobby, the narrator, is mocked for his weight; Addie’s height and inability to shut up have made her target; Joe’s homosexuality has made him incredibly blasé about slurs (he corrects the spelling of a slur on his locker); and Skeezie… well, he’s a 1950s greaser in the modern day. When school elections crop up, Addie immediately wants to run as a third party to buck the system, but Bobby turns it into a platform for his own idea—the No-Name Party, which advocates abolishing name-calling. Together, the “Gang of Five” (there’s four of them, if you’ve been counting) try to change the system from the inside out.
My first problem with The Misfits starts with the characters. These kids are supposedly twelve, yet Bobby is still legally able to work to supplement his father’s income after the death of his mother and they’re much too self-aware and worldly for twelve. It reminded me of The Baby-Sitters’ Club, which wanted you to believe that thirteen-year-olds could work in the town over with little to no problems. Yeah, not buying it. As for the characters themselves (beyond that common affliction of unbelievability), Bobby is nice enough; while a little bland, it’s good to see fat-shaming explored from a male perspective in young adult literature. Joe is a fairly stereotypical “bitchy queen”; I was surprised to find him, the target of so much name-calling, viciously predicting an early death for the popular girl whose only sin is trying to be nice to them even though she doesn’t like them. Skeezie’s an odd bird, although he can be fun—although his age threw his meeting with his future wife into weird territory for me. It’s Addie I can’t stand. She’s a shrill little harridan, pointedly trying to buck the system so much that she forgets why she’s trying to buck the system, which she doesn’t understand all that well in the first place. Bobby has to reign in her excess for the No-Name Party to get any recognition from the administration, which has some unfortunate implications.
In fact, The Misfits yielded up some interesting discussion in class, particularly framed around Addie, racism, and sexism. You see, when Addie decides to put together a campaign, she concludes that they need a popular kid to have any hope. She selects DuShawn, partly because he’s black; Addie assumes he’s been oppressed. DuShawn points out that they live in a fairly liberal town and that he’s never experienced any explicit racism before. The two end up together, oddly, although DuShawn does express some interest in Addie throughout the novel. But Addie never really seems to learn a lesson about this; rather, her character development takes her from being obnoxious to trying to, at least, reign in her obnoxious tendencies. So the harder, more insidious issues—like Addie’s over-zealous and tokenizing internal racism—are left unaddressed in favor of addressing the fairly cut and dried issue of name-calling.
The Misfits does do one thing well; it shows children how to empower themselves by trying to stop name-calling, walking them through steps they can take. (The Gang of Five’s anti-name-calling stickers in particular beg to be imitated.) That’s a good thing for children to learn, and I’m happy Howe is promoting it. But, like a lot of social justice novels, it abandons human, sympathetic characters and a compelling story in order to do so. I really hope the next book on the reading list is much better.
Bottom line: Like many of the social justice novels I’ve been reading for this class, The Misfits abandons human, sympathetic characters and a compelling story to drive home an admittedly good message about name-calling. Not worth it otherwise.
I bought this used book off of Amazon.