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Sam doesn't have it so bad. Sure, he has real problems reading and has to spend part of each day in the dreaded, ugly Resource Room. Sure, his parents are long gone. But Sam has friends and, most importantly, a wonderful "family" who loves him.

There's his grandfather Mack, a gifted woodworker who has passed on his skills, and his tools, to his beloved grandson, who also shows signs of seeing hidden possibilities in the most unlikely blocks of wood. There's Onji, who owns the deli next door and always gives Sam the best brown bag lunches. And there's Anima, owner of the Indian restaurant down the way, who cooks Sam's favorite curries and, most importantly, reads to him late into the evening, because Sam can't read by himself. Finally, there's Night Cat, Sam's beloved companion for as long as he can remember. Together, they form the perfect companions, making a comfortable extended family that nurture and protect one another.

So why is Sam dreading turning 11? The number 11 haunts him in dreams --- or are they barely-recalled memories? When Sam discovers a newspaper clipping that features a picture of himself as a very young boy and the headline "MISSING," he feels like there must be some mystery in his past that he soon becomes desperate to solve, even though he needs to read to do so. Perhaps Caroline, his new partner for a school castle-building assignment, will help him. She reads all the time, after all. But Caroline, whose itinerant parents can't seem to settle down and who's been to three schools already this year, has troubles of her own. Will she and Sam find the answer before it's too late? And what if the answer is what Sam fears? What if his only true family --- his grandfather --- isn't really his family at all?

In ELEVEN, veteran children's author Patricia Reilly Giff offers readers many issues to ponder. She explores questions of literacy, of belonging, of home and family, and of friendship. She also urges readers to question their own definitions of giftedness and of family. Both of these concepts are illustrated with great flexibility in the portrayal of Sam and of his unusual but loving and nurturing home life, contrasted with Caroline's more traditional, but less stable and satisfying, family situation.

Giff brilliantly employs these big issues in a plot that is simultaneously urgent --- will Sam discover his true identity? Do we even want him to? --- and leisurely, as she allows Sam plenty of room in which to question his assumptions and plenty of space in which Sam and Caroline's lovely friendship can grow. ELEVEN is one of those wonderful books whose quiet surface simplicity belies its deeply complex moral and philosophical questions. Quite simply, it is one of the best novels for young people that I've read in a long time.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 14, 2009

by Patricia Reilly Giff

  • Publication Date: April 14, 2009
  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Yearling
  • ISBN-10: 0440238021
  • ISBN-13: 9780440238027