Patricia Reilly Giff's middle grade novel Eleven begins with a mystery. On Sam's 11th birthday, while snooping for presents in the attic, he discovers a newspaper clipping. There's a picture of a boy that has to be Sam, at age 3, in a sweater that seems familiar. But this Sam has a different last name, and the article says that the boy is missing after a boating incident. Finding the article stirs up lost memories in Sam, confused fragments of a castle, and a boat, and being in the water. And of a cold, white kitchen and a cold, bitter woman.
Sam is frightened. He begins to suspect that he was kidnapped, and doesn't belong where he is. The trouble is, he's happy with his life. He lives with his grandfather, Mack, in a building with three shops below (his grandfather is a woodworker), and three apartments above. Sam and Mack have formed an unconventional family with the building's two other residents, Onji, who runs a deli, and Anima, who owns an Indian restaurant. Sam adores Mack, and can't figure out how Mack could have kidnapped him. And yet ... there are these memories.
Making the situation even more difficult for Sam is that fact that, because of a learning disability, he can't read. He has to enlist someone's help to read various documents that he finds in the attic. He chooses the new girl, Caroline, because he's afraid that the boys will make fun of him. And Caroline helps him, but warns him that they'll never really be friends.
This is a great book for middle grade readers. It's suspenseful yet realistic, with strong characters, and strong bonds between the unconventional family members. Sam's teacher is also an excellent character, quietly in the background, pulling strings to help Sam, in a way that he doesn't even fully realize. Sam himself is unique, with insecurities that come from his inability to read, but strengths, too. Here's a brief scene from early in the book:
"But Mack? Maybe Mack wasn't even his grandfather?
Ridiculous. Why would Mack want to kidnap a kid who had trouble with reading right from the start? A kid who was into everything, breaking things? "A klutzy kid," Anima always said, smiling.
But maybe Mack hadn't realized Sam would turn out like this? (Chapter 1)
My heart broke for Sam, reading that. Eleven is a book that kids will read quickly, because they'll want to know what happened to Sam. But they'll remember it because of the characters.
Afterword: This book also resonated with me personally, in a way that I didn't expect. Sam spends the book trying to figure out where he lived as a small child. There are various, subtle clues. And I put them together like lightning, because it turns out I have relatives who live near Sam's childhood home. And I visited there several times as a child, and completely identified with Sam's strong memories of a particular castle. This made me a little impatient with Sam - I wanted to shout out the answer. But it also gave the book extra depth for me, because I was able to layer on my own childhood memories. The end of the book brought tears to my eyes, but I couldn't tell you if this would have true if I didn't have this connection. Still, I loved this book, and will always keep it. It was my ninth title in the 2008 48 hour book challenge.
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Publication Date: January 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.