For some years now I've been talking to schoolkids about the value of failure. That gets their attention, because mostly what they hear around them is "Win! Win! We're Number One!" I mean, when's the last time you saw somebody after a championship game poke two fingers into the TV camera and yell "We're Number Two!"?

I've seen end-of-the-season Little League ceremonies where every kid in the league gets a trophy. Nobody loses. It's like we grown-ups do everything we can to protect our students, our kids from losing. Everybody's a winner.

Well, that's fine for contrived Little League ceremonies and such, but what about the real world? What happens when a kid graduates from high school and bumps into failure? Did anybody ever tell those kids that in this real world of ours, failure is much, much more common than success, and that losing is no disgrace? In fact, it's practically a requirement if you want to succeed. Sounds like a contradiction, doesn't it: lose so you can win. But it's a fact. I don't know of anyone of great achievement who hasn't used their failures as stepping-stones to success.

If I were a principal, you wouldn't be allowed to graduate from my school until you took a course called Failure Is My Friend, or Beginning Failure and Advanced Failure. My graduates wouldn't be afraid to lose. They would know that failures are not potholes, but stepping-stones.

Teachers and parents, hearing my remarks on the value of failure, have urged me to write a book about the subject. And so I have, though it's not the nonfiction book they've had in mind. It's a novel. It's called Loser.

It's about a kid named Zinkoff. He doesn't think he's a loser. Neither do his parents. Or a couple of his teachers. But many of his schoolmates think that's what he is. They see a kid who never seems to win at anything — grades, races, you name it (I mean, even his name starts with the last letter of the alphabet, for Pete's sake). And he's sloppy to boot. And an atrocious speller. And clumsy. And he laughs too much. And he barfs into his sock. And he kicks the soccer ball into the other team's net.

This kid's got a Ph.D. in failure.

So — big surprise — that's how they label him: "Loser."

But is it really that simple? Is that all there is to Zinkoff? Two questions this story wants you to think about are these: What really makes a loser? And a winner?