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When Sam realizes his interfaith parents can't figure out how to celebrate the holidays, he turns to God for answers.
Twelve-year-old Sam Goodman knows the holidays are going to be difficult when his dog knocks over the Hanukkah bush/Christmas tree. His Jewish father and Christian mother have never quite figured out how to celebrate both holidays, and when the tree goes down, their resentments, simmering for so long, boil over. His older sister and younger brother don't seem to have any solutions for the family's predicament; his best friend Avi seems to know who he is as he prepares for his Bar Mitzvah; his secret crush, Heather, knows who she is and who she wants to associate with.
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It's a rare children's author who is up to the challenge of writing across genres. Fewer still manage the transition smoothly. Booklist's Ilene Cooper is one of the successes. Her first book, a biography of Susan B. Anthony, opened the way for some 30 more, including the popular novels in the Kids from Kennedy Middle School series and the recent, ALA Notable biography Jack: The Early Years of John F. Kennedy (2003). With Sam I Am, out this month, Cooper returns to fiction, tackling a topic rarely treated in depth for middle-graders-religion. Why that particular subject? "Well," says Cooper, "I've always been fascinated by religion and the role it plays in our everyday lives. The idea of the Golden Rule, how people behave toward one another, is a recurring theme in my writing. Mean Streak, Queen of Sixth Grade, even Jack--they're all about how we treat others and being a better person, things my character Sam Goodman has to deal with, too."
For Sam, it starts simply enough, when the Goodmans' dog knocks over the family's "Hannukah Bush." But the rascally pet's misdeed does more than topple the holiday tree; it prompts Sam's parents to rethink their decision to bring up their children without religious affiliation. Suddenly, Mr. Goodman, who is Jewish, and Mrs. Goodman, who is Christian, are arguing, and their clipped words and uncharacteristic silences are making everyone in the family uncomfortable, particularly 12-year-old Sam.
Isn't 12 a little young to start thinking about such complicated ideas? "I don't think so," says Cooper. "That's about the time when kids really begin noticing what's around them. My house is different from your house; my parents are different from yours. They start to see contradictions and hypocrisies, and have to figure out how to deal with them."
Indeed, Cooper traverses some hugely complicated territory as she spins out her story, which began, she says, as a gently comical book about kids growing up in an interfaith household. "But as I got deeper into the writing," Cooper admits, "I realized that the story had to address God in a serious way. It was a scary leap." Then she got caught up in the idea of writing about a family whose solutions weren't working for anyone. "It was hard to juggle so many things without making everything seem planned," Cooper recalls, "and I had to get it right without stereotyping people."
But even when dealing with religious themes, Cooper never forgets that Sam is still a kid occupied with school, friends, and girls. And she's on the mark when it comes to both the middle-grade milieu and young teens' emotions, especially Sam's blind devotion to his pretty classmate, Heather, whom Cooper calls "careless. Like so many kids at that age, she doesn't care and she has no cares."
Heather is a great foil for Sam, who obviously cares deeply. When his seventh-grade class begins a unit on the Holocaust, Sam, who has already initiated a few conversations with God, becomes even more intense in his questioning about faith and belief, and turns to God again. As Cooper explains, "I wanted kids to understand that prayer is everywhere and that one of its purposes it to help us facilitate the better angels in ourselves." And as Sam speaks to God, it's very plain that he's listening and talking to himself, too. Eventually, after he realizes that prayer is just a part of the dialogue, he talks to his grandmothers; his Jewish friend's father; his college-age sister, who is leaning toward an Eastern religion; and his parents, each of whom, in his or her own way, leads him to conclude that despite their differences, religions have a common goal: "In a way, they are all about repairing the world."So which religion do you think Sam will ultimately choose? "I don't know," says Cooper. "But I think that any kid as inquiring as he is will make a good decision." Stephanie Zvirin
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Grade 5-7–Pluto the dog knocks down the family's Christmas tree (known as a Hanukkah bush in the Goodman household) and the question of religion makes a sudden and unwelcome appearance. Dad is Jewish; Mom is Episcopalian; and the three kids, Ellen, Sam, and Maxie, have been brought up pretty much with no religion. When Dad suggests they celebrate Hanukkah this year, things become very tense, a situation exacerbated by the two grandmothers, who cordially loathe one another. Once the holidays limp to a close, the issue of religion continues to torment 12-year-old Sam. His mother suggests he try talking to God, but God doesn't seem to be answering. When his class begins a unit on the Holocaust and he starts talking to various adults about it, his confusion and unhappiness grows. A secondary plot about Sam's interest in a shallow girl is woven into the narrative. After a promising beginning, the story turns into an examination of the role of religion in the modern American family. Sam is a likable kid, and a fairly reliable narrator, although at times he sounds much older than his 12 years. No grand conclusions are reached–the parties involved agree to disagree and let the kids make their own decisions when they grow up, which is what they were doing in the first place.–Mara Alpert, Los Angeles Public Library
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