Eleven, by Patricia Reilly Giff

Eleven, by Patricia Reilly Giff (2008, 165 pages, for middle grade readers).

It’s a common thing to wonder if your family really is your family, but what happens when you find a newspaper clipping that says that you were once a missing child? A few days before his eleventh birthday, Sam finds such a clipping in an old metal box in the attic, with a picture of himself when he was three, missing, and with a different name. He begins to remember strange and disturbing things from long ago, and starts to worry that doesn't belong with Mack, his beloved grandfather. Is he meant to be with the horrible woman he dimly remembers, or safe with Mack and the two other friends who share their little complex of shops and apartments—Anima, who has an Indian restaurant, and Onji, who runs a deli? And why is he so afraid of the number 11?

But Sam can’t read, and can’t figure out more than a few words in the old newspaper article. For Sam, “…the lines moved like black spiders, stretching their legs and waving their feelers across the pages.” So the next day at school, he must find a reader. He decides on the new girl, Caroline, and fate seals their partnership when they are assigned to build a model castle together. They become friends—a friendship made anxious and intense by Caroline’s imminent move away to another town and yet another new school, and their need to solve they mystery and build the castle before she goes.

Sam’s family, Mack, Anima, and Onji, are one of the most lovingly written, deeply real examples of what makes a home a safe warm place for a child I can think of. Little things—Sam’s routine stop at Onji’s deli every morning for his lunch sandwich, and the gummi bears Onji hides in the sandwich on Sam’s birthday. Big things, like helping Sam with his reading, leading to one of the best examples of an adult reading out loud to a kid I’ve ever encountered. Here’s just one passage:

“Sam has to know the world,” Anima had said. “If he can’t read yet, one thing we can do while we try to help him is to give him the world of books.”

Mack had nodded.

And Onji: “How?”

“I’ll read aloud every night.” So when things quieted in the restaurant, Anima read to all of them for at least an hour. And what she read! Long poems, the Bible, stories about a kid who dug holes, about a spider who saved a pig. Anima’s accent made her sound like an English queen.

Sometimes they loved what she read, and sometimes they didn’t. She’d shrug, reading about copper mining or sea routes. Onji would fall asleep, his snores almost drowning her out. And sometimes Mack put his head back, his eyes closed. But Sam never slept.

And Mack, Sam’s grandfather, teaches him wood working, a bond and skill and intuitive knowledge they share, which Sam in turn shares with Caroline as they build their castle together and figure out what happened the night when three year old Sam was missing.

This great love and safety embodied in Sam’s family is thrown into question by the newspaper clipping. Sam is a great kid in a tremendously anxious situation, and I felt so bad for him I cried.* I think the mystery aspects of the plot—two kids following a trail of clues-- might take center stage for the younger reader, but for an adult reader like me, with boys of my own, it is the people and their love for each other that make this book outstanding.

Patricia Reilly Giff is the author of Lily’s Crossing, and Pictures of Hollis Woods, both of which I liked a lot. But this one I love. If anyone has knows any actual children who have read it, I’d be curious to know what they thought.

*I read it a second time yesterday, to refresh my memory, and sniffed all over again.

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