Author: Patricia Reilly Giff
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Genre: Realistic Fiction/Mystery
Themes: Friendship, Family, Mystery
Age Range: 4th-7th Grade
Summary: from Goodreads
Sam is almost 11 when he discovers a locked box in the attic above his grandfather Mack’s room, and a piece of paper that says he was kidnapped. There are lots of other words, but Sam has always had trouble reading. He’s desperate to find out who he is, and if his beloved Mack is really his grandfather. At night he’s haunted by dreams of a big castle and a terrifying escape on a boat. Who can he trust to help him read the documents that could unravel the mystery? Then he and the new girl, Caroline, are paired up to work on a school project, building a castle in Mack’s woodworking shop. Caroline loves to read, and she can help. But she’s moving soon, and the two must hurry to discover the truth about Sam.
I must admit to not being sure what I was getting when I started reading this book. from the blurb it almost sounded like it could turn out to be a fantasy novel, what with all the talk about castles and such. Maybe I was just making the (false, as it turns out) connection between Sam's reading disability and that of the demi-god Percy Jackson from Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. At any rate, what I got was a pretty good mystery novel for the upper elementary set.
There are many things that are interesting about this book, beginning with the cast of characters. Sam lives with his grandfather Mack, who can build anything out of wood. They live in an apartment above Mack's woodworking business, in the same building as Mack's best friend Onji and his deli, and a sweet grandmotherly type named Anima who owns an Indian restaurant. You don't find references to chicken curry or samosas in a kids' book that isn't about India. Sam himself is a very relateable character. His learning disability makes him shy and a little anxious in many situations, and his uncertainty about his place in the world is something that I imagine many students feel, whether they are searching for the truth about their family history or not.
The mystery is one central point of the story, but really it is the foundation for a broader theme of what it means to be a family. Sam's family is certainly non-traditional. While more and more kids are being raised by grandparents, it's not usually grandpa by himself, and certainly not with such interesting companions helping with the parenting. Sam feels very ambivalent about searching for the truth about his relationship with Mack, considering giving up the search for fear that he would find out the man he loved is complicit in taking him away from his "real" family. But in the end he decides he needed the truth. This could be an interesting discussion point if using this book in a guided reading group or kids book club.
The book is also about friendship, and Sam's friendship with Caroline shows how being vulnerable can make a friendship deeper. In order to solve his mystery he has to be very open with Caroline about his reading disability, but she also has to open up to him, admitting how hard it is to make friends when her father keeps moving their family around all the time. I always appreciate a well written friendship between a boy and a girl, and this fits that bill. They each bring different strengths to the friendship, and use them to work together to solve the mystery of Sam's story.
Multnomah County Teacher's Guide