Samantha Sanderson on the Scene book review

If you’re looking for the Hop Against Homophobia and Transphobia post for International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, click here.

Because I have already reviewed the first book, Samantha Sanderson at the Movies, at length, you may want to read that review first.

  • Title: Samantha Sanderson on the Scene
  • Author: Robin Caroll
  • Print length: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Zonderkidz
  • Publication date: May 6, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 2 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 3 gingersnaps for craft(2)
  • 3 gingersnaps for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 2.5 gingersnaps (below average)

Review copy provided by BookLook Bloggers, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Christian Publishing

The periphery details:

Same as the first book.

The book:

Sam Sanderson returns, this time in a bullying case. A girl at school receives notes calling her fat, and Sam gets help from her best friend Makayla to figure out who’s responsible.

The positive:

Finding quality Christian fiction for children is always a challenge, particularly fiction that doesn’t package a sermon in a flimsy disguise for a story. I appreciate the light hand Caroll takes in regards to Christianity, even if it gets lost underneath the heavy-handed “After-School Special” approach to bullying.

Without giving spoilers, I will say that the choice of “bad guy” was handled appropriately. There are no true villains in this story, which is a good message and good writing.

I also appreciate seeing fiction about Christian girls with positive role models and supportive parents.

This book’s mystery, the bullying of a schoolmate, is more plausible (than the first book in which Sam investigates a bombing) for a middle-school girl heroine.


The not-so-positive:

This book had the same issues as the first in regard to pacing. In fact, the book used exactly the same formula: opening mystery, multiple dead-end red herring trails, an abrupt resolution a few pages from the end of the book, and no consequences for any of Sam’s inappropriate behavior.

However, this book magnifies the flaw of the first one and adds another one. It’s an odd mixture of preaching about bullying and allowing its main character to flout ethics without consequences.

I was disturbed by Sam’s slap on the wrist followed by praise for confessing that she broke into an administrator’s computer. In the first book, Sam used her school newspaper blog to launch wild accusations at innocent adults without any consequences. In this book, Sam does confess and receive a token punishment (clean-up duty), but she receives many pats on the back for owning up to her mistake. I agree that fiction should depict real people, rather than a morality lesson, but Caroll takes such pains to reinforce the lesson (BULLYING IS BAD) that the contrast is unsettling.

What was worse, however, was Makayla’s gossip about students’ counseling files. Again, as in book one, Sam breaks rules in order to get information for her sleuthing. In the first book, Sam regularly eavesdropped and ended up getting her dad in trouble at work. In this book, she pressures a friend to break ethical rules about confidentiality. As an aside, why would a school allow a student to see confidential files, anyway? I would be very upset, as a student or a parent, if private details were shared without my permission.

What I found most disappointing about this book was its issues with superficial attempts to include diversity. Unlike the first book, that only mentioned “mocha” skin in passing and therefore rated only a small mark-down, this book tried to address race and failed. I beg of any author:

Write diversity well, or skip it entirely.

One of the worst lines of dialogue in the entire book is when Tam, an Asian character, says that she was bullied “about my Asian heritage.” Few adults of color would say that, let alone children. Honestly. What middle school student would talk this way, particularly an American child who is half Chinese? The line rings tone-deaf to the actual racism and bullying faced by children of color every day.

Makayla, who is this time identified as “African American” (but still portrayed as white on the book, this time with even lighter skin), is surprised when Sam informs her that bullying can take racial forms. I guarantee that if Makayla were an actual living middle school student, she would be the one teaching white Sam about racial bullying. I have never met a person of color who could not instantly come up with several instances of racially inappropriate behavior. Are they willing to share it with a white author gathering source material for her book? Most likely not.

I beg authors to either write racial diversity the real way or omit it. This kind of ethnocentrism is a poor message in applying Christianity to our day-to-day lives. Nearly thirty years ago, The Baby-Sitters Club mentioned its one member of color in passing as a token nod to diversity. Surely, in 2014, we have moved past this kind of superficial representation?

Lest this review come across as harsh, let me point out that I am critiquing this representation within its own context. I would not apply the same criteria to a book that never mentioned skin color of its characters, or a book that used some self-awareness about its superficiality regarding race.

(Bonus reading: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” from the New York Times and “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature”, also from the New York Times)

Children of color are Christians, too. They deserve stories for and about them, not to be relegated as a white-washed sidekick who must be taught about racial bullying by the white protagonist.


Conclusion: Samantha Sanderson on the Scene offers a Christian-based story for white readers. Not recommended for children of color.

  1. Content refers to the themes and structure of the book. For fiction, this includes macro elements such as the book’s premise, character arcs, and how well the conflict and resolution fulfill the promise of the book. For non-fiction, this refers to the information that is conveyed.
  2. Craft refers to the level of writing technique, ranging from clarity of text to carefully edited prose.
  3. Christian themes refers to the application of Biblical principles as well as the understanding and application of Christian theology.
    Additional note: The combined score generally is a mathematical average of the three ratings, unless an individual rating is especially low or high.

6 thoughts on “Samantha Sanderson on the Scene book review

  1. annapurna1951 says:

    I can’t keep up with your posts! I’m still droopy-eyed and brain-fogged after submitting my reply concerning domestic violence–a great piece by the way.

    It would appear Sam, the character, feels that the end justifies the means, not a good moral for journalists. Yes bullying is bad; but so is breaking into the administrator’s computer for information. Sam should have been expelled for that. If such an act were necessary to stop a nuclear attack on New York City, we could excuse it (or something similar), but not in this case, I think. It seems as if Sam gets a pass, more or less. Maybe Robin should have spent more time laying a better plot foundation.

    In my novel, one of my characters is a Hopi Indian who received her high school education in a Winslow, Arizona high school and her college degree in nursing at the University of Washington. I purchased every book I could find on the Hopi and plan to visit their reservation to see if anyone will be willing to talk with me. I need to know as much as possible about their spirituality and child rearing practices. With all that effort, I’ve been very careful to dance around the subject of race.

    In my experience, people generally don’t talk about their ethnic-racial backgrounds, so Robin may have created a plausibility issue, I think.


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Sometimes I write once a week, and other times I have more to say. Consistency, thy name is NOT Ana. 😛

      It’s true that main characters of children’s books do break rules and get away with it (Harry Potter, anyone?), and I don’t want a book to become a morality tale. Still, breaking into an adult’s computer as well as sharing confidential counseling information troubled me a great deal. Just as in the first book, when Sam all but accused several people of a crime they didn’t commit, bad behavior is almost justified as part of finding out the culprit.

      The race thing was gratuitous and made no sense within the story. It felt like an insulting way to say, “I’m going to acknowledge that this is an exclusive book, but I won’t actually do anything about it.” Again, that was perhaps the norm thirty years ago, but it shouldn’t still be the norm now.

      We need more diversity in fiction (any kind of fiction), but we also have to be incredibly respectful when we write about people and things we haven’t experienced. Whether it’s racial/ethnic makeup, rape, violence, death of a loved one, etc., it’s important to do enough research to respect the people we write about. At the same time, no matter how much research we do, we need to respect that it’s not our experience.


      • annapurna1951 says:

        Please accept my apologies for using the wrong name.

        “At the same time, no matter how much research we do, we need to respect that it’s not our experience.”

        I’m not sure what you mean by this statement.

        Understandably, when I write about someone or something, I know automatically, even before I begin, that it’s not my experience. I think it’s self-evident. Even if I’m writing about my own experience, I’m no better off because whatever I have witnessed will not be accurate, true, or objective. Additionally, what someone tells me, I hold it in very high regard, regardless of whether it’s factual or not. It’s their truth, so it’s good enough. In other words, I treat the storyteller and his or her experience with the utmost kindness, respect, and empathy of which I’m capable, and I’m capable of a lot.

        I would venture to guess that most writers of fiction today haven’t experienced a fraction of what they have chosen to write about, even those who win the Pulitzer Prize. Even if they have, they might still benefit greatly by interviewing others who have had similar experiences. They might even learn something in the process.

        Take Hemingway and The Old Man in the Sea. Did Hemingway hunt for swordfish as his main character did in the story? I doubt it. Even if he had, Hemingway’s life, his very existence, did not depend on fishing, so Hemingway doesn’t really know what it feels like to be hungry and dependent on making the catch, or die trying. Very few people do, and they aren’t writers.

        In my novel, the two main characters go on a reunion date by taking a raft trip from Mukilteo Light House to Brackett’s Landing. A stupid-ass excursion, if you ask me. As luck would have it, I took the very same trip; it’s eight hours of solid rowing over eleven miles on the Puget Sound. My jaunt was uneventful; the trip my characters took wasn’t.

        In addition, no, I didn’t wear a life jacket and neither did my characters. I wanted realism. I even threw myself into the water to see what drowning was like. Well, I’m still here, so I failed at that as well.

        I guess it comes down to this: if I were to limit my writing to direct experience only, I wouldn’t write anything at all.


  2. minellesbreath says:

    I love how much information you give us in this review. As a parent I welcome the issues you address. Many authors try to gloss over important details and perspectives on morality or race to press forth their beliefs or agenda.
    Not many reviewers are willing to tell the truth.


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      It’s hard when reviewing for friends! That’s why I started reviewing outside of my genre. Reviews are for readers and potential readers, not authors. Good Christian fiction is extremely rare, and as a parent I’d want to know about potential issues before letting my children read it.


Thank you so much for joining the discussion! Please play nicely or you may be asked to stand in the corner. ;)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s