This is a great story on a lot of levels. First, it's a terrific page-turning mystery. I couldn't put the book down. I wanted to know who Sam was. I wanted to understand how all of the pieces of his life puzzle fit together. It's not so complex, though, that a fourth or fifth grade reader couldn't enjoy or understand the book.
Next, I loved that Sam was surrounded by people who loved him and cared for him, but those people were not a "traditional" family. Instead, he was being raised by his grandfather Mack, and by Onji, Mack's friend and the owner of the deli attached to Mack's woodworking shop, and by Amina, who owned an Indian restaurant and cooked yummy dinners and read to Sam every night. So many of the kids I know are being raised by grandparents, or aunts and uncles, or family friends, or foster parents. I love that Sam's family looks a lot like many of my students' families.
I also loved the friendship that developed between Sam and Caroline. I think it's so important for intermediate grade kids to see healthy, "non-romantic" boy/girl friendships. I love that both characters brought something to the table- Caroline was better at reading books, but Sam was better at relationships. And in the end, they both helped each other to grow.
Finally, I think Patricia Reilly Giff does a remarkable job getting inside the head of a struggling reader. Sam doesn't see letters and words, instead, he sees spiders crawling across the page. It's incredibly frustrating, and he has basically given up ever learning to read. I love that Giff is realistic- she doesn't present him as moving from a non-reader to a reader in one day. Instead, at the end of the book, Sam realizes that he really wants to read, first so he can stay connected with Caroline, and second, so he can pursue his woodworking dreams.
This is a terrific read! I can't wait to share it with my fourth and fifth graders tomorrow!