Samantha Sanderson at the Movies book review

  • Title: Samantha Sanderson at the Movies
  • Author: Robin Caroll
  • Print length: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Zonderkidz
  • Publication date: May 6, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 4 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 4 gingersnaps for craft(2)
  • 5 gingersnaps for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 4 gingersnaps (recommended)

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

Note: I received a print copy for review, but Amazon currently offers only the ebook version. I’m not sure when or if this will change, but please keep in mind that there may be issues with the ebook that were not in the print copy.

The periphery details:

Samantha Sanderson at the Movies is exactly what it sounds like: a book in a series aimed at upper elementary and middle school students. So far, the series has two books. The 22 chapters are followed by an acknowledgements page, two-page list of discussion questions, a preview of the second book in the series, and an invitation to join the Zondervan (parent company of Zonderkidz) street team.

The book itself is pleasing to hold and read. The pages are laid out well, the font is clear and easy to read, and the matte cover is nicely done. My very small complaint is that the title seems to target a younger audience (reminiscent of the Cam Jansen mystery books whose heroine is two years younger than Samantha).

The book:

Picture a Disney family movie, Cam Jansen for a slightly older audience, and a Christian setting. That’s Samantha Sanderson at the Movies, with a dash of 21st-century technology. Seventh-grader Samantha, who prefers to be called “Sam,” divides her time between cheerleading, writing for her school newspaper, and enjoying her best friend, Makayla. Her detective father and international journalist mother spend a good deal of their time apart, but her mother keeps in touch with her through daily phone calls.

While visiting the local movie theater, Sam and her father discover a bomb set to go off during the showing of a Christian film. Desperate to prove her journalistic mettle, she begs for the story assignment and spends the book sleuthing for the culprit. In the process, she comes to learn lessons of integrity, ethics, witnessing her faith, friendship, and loyalty.

The positive:

Samantha Sanderson at the Movies receives top marks for its handling of Christian themes. During a conversation, Sam realizes that her classmate is not a Christian and that this is the first non-Christian she has encountered. Misunderstandings occur on both sides.

“Do you have a problem with that?”

“No. It’s none of my business,” Sam said.

“Right. Just because we’re not part of some religious mumbo-jumbo group, we’re weird, right?”

“I didn’t say that,” Sam argued.

“You didn’t have to. It was all in the curl of your lip.” Grace shook her head. “Hypocrite.”

“I didn’t mean that. You’re putting words in my mouth. Or in the curl of my lip.” Sam’s heartbeat hiccuped. She really did like Grace and didn’t want to offend or upset her. She hadn’t meant to do that at all.

“Since we’re not some holier-than-thou Christian types, you think we’re weird, don’t you?”

[. . .]

Sam fell into step alongside with her. “I can’t speak for anybody else, but I just don’t understand it is all.”

[. . .]

Grace shook her head. “I just can’t buy into a loving Father or anything. Look at all the evil in the world. All the bad things that keep happening … even that bomb at the theater. If there’s a God who wants what’s best, why does stuff like this happen?”

The same questions Sam wrestled with. “I don’t know, exactly. But I believe in God. I believe in His Son. [. . .] I don’t have all the answers, Grace. I wish I did. But I do know that our time here is marked in years, but after here? Yeah, that’s forever. I want to have eternal life, and the only way for me to have that is to know that Jesus is God’s Son, He died for me, and I accept Him in my heart.”

[. . .]

“I still don’t buy it, but thanks for not thinking I’m a freak for being different,” Grace said as she took two steps toward her own class.

(pp. 126-128)

Wow. First, Sam apologizes for appearing to judge when she acted out of ignorance. Second, she admits to not having answers. Third, Grace the non-Christian is given worthy, weighty questions that all Christians should struggle with in order to strengthen our faith. Best of all, Sam’s response to Grace is reinforced by her mother and later her youth group leader. Smug, know-it-all, superficial Christians do far more harm than good when they judge without understanding. Hats off to Caroll for portraying real faith instead of a cardboard cutout faith suitable for a six-year-old. Hats off for portraying non-Christian characters with respect and dignity.

I also appreciated the portrayal of Sam’s parents as loving, attentive adults who aren’t afraid to set boundaries or teach ethical behavior–without getting preachy. While her father comes across as lenient to the point of indulgent for much of the book, he does not shirk from his parenting responsibilities when Sam steps over the line he’s drawn. The balance is written well. Because he is such a permissive parent for the most part, his boundary-setting is all the more effective when it happens. Samantha deals very well with the ethical questions involved, and Sam comes to a more mature understanding by the end of the book.

The book’s writing is fast-paced and flows well. While there are too many red herrings and the denouement feels rushed, there is enough suspense to keep the reader interested. While good values are reinforced through the storyline, they appear naturally in the background rather than being pushed as a dominant propaganda under a thin veneer of story. Samantha is a story for story’s sake, and its values are an added bonus. Sam’s church and youth group are mentioned in passing, as part of her everyday life, rather than forced down the reader’s throat on every page. Caroll follows her own characters’ advice to demonstrate a life of faith without becoming pushy.

One especially nice touch is the principal’s reaction to Sam’s use of “mental illness” as an inflammatory tactic. Well done.

 

The not-so-positive:

My biggest problem with the book was its pacing. While the initial buildup uses a great hook to spark interest, the multiple dead-end tangents of finding the bombing culprit dominate too much of the book. The sub-plot about her cheerleading is extraneous and distracts from an already sufficiently complex story line. The denouement comes abruptly and does not offer Sam ways to come to terms with the consequences of her journalism. Her daily blogging articles for the school newspaper, correctly termed “sensationalizing” by the movie theater owner, suggest blame for several innocent adults whose reputations are hurt by the process.

In a nod to political correctness without any substance to back it up, Caroll throws in two references to the “mocha” colored skin of Makayla, Sam’s best friend. (Note: Makayla is portrayed as light-skinned on the cover.) Really? Really? If we’re going to write about white main characters in a white family, without mentioning that they are white, there is no need to mention the skin color of the one non-white character of the book. I’ve referred to this before as the “Harry Potter” type of diversity writing, which is to use an “ethnic” name without any “ethnic” characteristics whatsoever. If Makayla is African American (we’ll skip the issue of people of color only representing sidekicks for the moment), then make her African American. Race is about more than skin color, and Caroll would have done better to either omit skin color references entirely or do justice to her token attempt at writing diversity.

Finally, Sam takes entirely too much credit for Makayla’s computer sleuthing skills. I recognize that these types of books, like a Disney family movie, tend to place plaudits on the heroine’s shoulders because they make the audience feel good. I have no objection to some child-targeted wishful thinking, but I’d like to add this to the discussion questions at the end. “Sam receives praise, but many people help her obtain the information. In what ways could Sam express her appreciation for all the people who helped her?”

 

Conclusion: Samantha Sanderson at the Movies deftly weaves a tale of a young girl raised to become an ethical, responsible Christian. While the storyline occasionally takes unnecessary detours, the mystery will draw in young readers. Recommended for upper elementary and lower middle school students.

(UPDATE) After reading the Kirkus Review, I have to agree with these statements:

Her ambition leads her to write a series of witch-hunt pieces, each strongly insinuating the guilt of a suspect du jour [. . .] Self-righteous Sam ignores the effects her articles have on her suspects and her father’s investigation; aside from occasional, fleeting moments of remorse, she faces very few consequences for her actions and sees too little character growth.

I objected to these points, too, but had already written far too long of a book review. I still recommend the book for the reasons I described, but the Kirkus Review explains why I gave the book four gingersnaps instead of five. “Witch-hunt” is an apt description of Sam’s articles, and I became increasingly uncomfortable with her sensationalizing that is praised in the book as honest and courageous journalism. I would hate for any young, aspiring journalists to follow in Sam’s footsteps by accusing community members without any proof.

  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.

The Rainbow Egg book review: Trite, inauthentic, and insulting

  • Title: The Rainbow Egg
  • Author: Linda Hendricks
  • Print length: 24 pages
  • Publisher: Westbow Press
  • Publication date: November 27, 2012
  • Rating:
  • 0 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 0.5 gingersnap for craft(2)
  • 1 gingersnap for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 0.5 gingersnap (strongly not recommended)

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

The peripheries:

The Rainbow Egg is only available for review as an ebook, which was a severe miscalculation from the publisher. I tried viewing the book on three devices (Calibre, Kindle Paperwhite, and Kindle Fire). The book is nearly illegible on the last two and too slow to load on the first. While the page layout may be better on the printed page, the layout of the ebook is disjointed and unappealing to the eye. Even on a large-size Kindle fire, which should have shown off the illustrations to their best advantage, the pictures were tiny and hard to see. At several points, odd placement of text and a small graphic made it seem as if the page had failed to load completely. Any electronic picture book for children should be optimized for tablet and e-reader viewing, and this one missed the mark by a mile.

Also, the Amazon sample only shows the cover illustration and the title page. It does not hint at the readability issues. If I had bought this book as a regular customer, viewing the tiny pictures on the first non-sample page would have made me immediately file for a refund.

The book:

The Rainbow Egg uses simple, childlike illustrations of a chicken named Hope who has a rainbow egg and no nest. She finds an eggless chicken couple living in a coop, and she offers her egg to them before disappearing, presumably never to be heard from again.

The positive:

The story seems to be an attempt to reassure adopted children that they are loved and special. This is an important message that needs reinforcing through many channels.

The not-so-positive:

This book has so many problems that it’s difficult to know where to begin or whether to list them all. In the spirit of fairness, I will list a few constructive suggestions at the end even though that is not typically the function of a book review.

The first problem lies with the marketing of the book. The book blurb advertises The Rainbow Egg as “a fresh look at adoption,” while the text is trite, clunky, and downright insulting to its audience. Fred Rogers, one of the greatest heroes of children’s programming, was famous in his impatience with adults who tried to get by with shoddy work for children’s shows. The Rainbow Egg is neither fresh nor well-crafted, and its trite wording lacks imagination, artistry, and a feel for its audience. With only 24 pages in a children’s picture book, every single sentence must be well-chosen. Each word must convey purpose and build toward the story’s message. As an example, Max Lucado’s inspirational pictures books are of such high quality that many adults read them. Janell Cannon’s classic, Stellaluna, is another example of a picture book that enchants with its lyrical text and stunning illustrations. The Rainbow Egg instead reads as a bedtime story written for the author’s children that should have remained a private family story.

As a mainstream commercial product published and aimed at children, The Rainbow Egg fails on almost every level. The few attempts at artistry–an effort to convey humor at trying to lay an egg or describe a bird’s song–lack both the writing technique and emotional resonance to pull them off.

Some books shine with sincerity, clarity, and authenticity. This book is not one of them, and the author’s biographical note gives a hint why this might be so:

Her struggle with infertility, followed by the adoption of her two children, has fueled her need to tell her story to children and adults as one of compassion and love.

This book reads as an adult’s need to justify her decision to adopt, preceded by a need to be validated after coming to terms with infertility. In essence, this book lacks sincerity because her message and target audience don’t match. While trying to tell a story of “compassion and love” to children in a picture book marketed to children, instead her book tells of a parent seeking validation and affirmation of her journey to become a parent. A memoir of her journey to adopt, or a picture book aimed at other adoptive parents, would have filled this need in a more emotionally honest way.

Also, writing a story in which a baby chicken should be grateful to be adopted contrasts starkly with a parent who publicly lists adoption as her second-best choice. There was no need to list “struggle with infertility” in her biographical note, and this ambivalence shows itself in the flat, uninspired text of her book.

However, the most disturbing part of The Rainbow Egg is its one-dimensional insistence that the baby boy chick is surrounded by a picture-perfect (literally) happy adoption story for which he must always be happy and grateful. While this may have been the attitude in 1950, by 2014 we have moved to more open discussions of the range of feelings children may experience about adoption. Books such as The Rainbow Egg do a great disservice in telling children to suppress their fears and sadness. Other books, including Stellaluna and a few I will mention at the end of this review, acknowledge children’s negative emotions about adoption. The best way to tell children they are loved is to understand and accept what they feel at the time, even if that feeling is not socially appropriate. When seven-year-old children are put on a plane alone and sent back to Russia with a note pinned to their clothes saying, “I no longer wish to parent this child,” it is neither unreasonable nor unusual for an adopted child to fear abandonment. Superficial happy-happy stories like The Rainbow Egg do not reinforce loving bonds; they stifle honest discussion and perpetuate myths that force adopted children to live up to an ideal of perfection.

Conclusion: The Rainbow Egg misjudges its audience, and its weak craftsmanship combined with serious layout issues make it a book to miss. I would advise parents, teachers, and caregivers of adopted children to instead check out classic picture books on adoption such as Allison by Allen Say, Horace by Holly Keller, Let’s Talk About It: Adoption by Fred Rogers, An American Face by Jan Czech, Tell Me Again About the Night I was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis, or any of the enormous range of books available. All have problems and may not be suitable for a certain child, but they deal more honestly with a child’s right to experience a range of feelings about being adopted. After all, isn’t that the real story of love?

  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.

Becoming Home book review

  • Title: Becoming Home: Adoption, Foster Care, and Mentoring–Living Out God’s Heart for Orphans
  • Author: Jedd Medefind
  • Contributors: Francis Chan, Jim Daly, Ruslan Maliuta, David Platt, and Carissa Woodwyk
  • Print length: 91 pages
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Publication date: January 7, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 1 gingersnap (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 2 gingersnaps for craft(2)
  • 1 gingersnap for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 1 gingersnap (strongly not recommended)

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

Earlier this year, I posted my philosophy on writing book reviews. I enjoy writing book reviews, but it can be tricky to balance friendships/work relationships and a need to write an objective (as far as is humanly possible), professional review. For that reason, I’ve decided to begin reviewing books outside of my genre and for authors I do not know personally. I follow the BookLook approach to publishing negative reviews (rather than choosing not to publish):

Of course we want every title to be a home run with readers, but when they aren’t we want to know why. The only way we can continue to bring our readers consistent and quality non-fiction is to receive honest and unbiased feedback from them. We’re not asking for positive reviews in return for free review materials. We’re asking for complete objectivity.

The first book I received for review, Becoming Home: Adoption, Foster Care, and Mentoring–Living Out God’s Heart for Orphans, would have been a DNF (do not finish) if it had not been a mini-book consisting of 91 small pages. The topic, caring for children at risk, is one that is close to my heart, and I had hoped to enjoy the book. The preliminary infographic section was promising, but the first chapter lost me. I contacted BookLook to ask whether I could have the book removed from my account as I could not finish reading it. I was offered the chance to do so but also reassured that I could post a negative review as long as it was honest. After much thought, I decided to finish reading the book and publish this one-star review.

Today’s review will be longer than usual, largely because I feel that a one-star review should give solid reasons for its rating. As to why I published this review, a glance at Amazon revealed glowing reviews that did not touch on any of the book’s serious errors. The book contains dangerous misinformation that could jeopardize children across the world, and no one else has written a respectful, professional review explaining why this is so. I would not want my silence to constitute agreement with the existing positive reviews.

The book:

Becoming Home is part of a series, Frames, put together by the Barna group. Each mini-volume contains quantitative data (in this case, 2005 surveys of adults living in the United States) and focuses on a contemporary topic such as “Schools in Crisis” or “Fighting for Peace.” The book begins with preparatory questions about the topic, such as “When you hear ‘loving orphans,’ what comes to mind?” This is followed by a succinct visual representation of the survey results. The rest of the book alternates between a summary of major issues for the topic and personal testimonials from adults who adopted one or more children and urge the reader to adopt. At the end, a “Re/Frame” section showcases responses from people involved in adoption, such as organization founders and public speakers.

The positive:

The graphics are clear, easy to understand, and appealing in presentation. True to the concept of Frames, they give the reader a quick and intuitive understanding of the survey’s questions and responses. The book achieves its goal with its target audience, an uninformed lay reader.

The not-so-positive:

According to the printed information about Barna group, its mission is “to provide people with credible knowledge and clear thinking, enabling them to navigate a complex and changing culture.”

By its own standards, Becoming Home fails. Sloppy theology, ethnocentric assumptions, a misunderstanding of the predicaments of children at risk, and glaring omissions damage this book’s credibility. Instead of capitalizing on its greatest strength, a large-scale quantitative survey, it uses a simplistic understanding of theology to promote a dangerous message: The Bible tells us to adopt orphans everywhere, and we should spend our money to do so. The book cites “single” orphans and fails to acknowledge the logical flaw of conflating “single” orphans with the Biblical reference to orphans. A child with one living parent is not an orphan in the Biblical sense. A child of a single parent may be at greater risk for poverty or other negative factors, but this is a child at risk rather than a parentless child in need of adoption.

The book’s greatest error is diluting its statistical findings with 14 pages of sentimental testimonials by adults who adopted or wanted to adopt. For a series that promises “data-driven” and “credible knowledge,” those 14 pages would have been put to better use by further discussing its survey results. Or, they could have been used to prepare potential adoptive US parents for the challenges of raising a child born and partially raised abroad, in a completely different language, culture, and environment. It is no coincidence that international adoption soared along with US infertility rates and single mothers raising their children instead of placing them for adoption. In the process, 20 Russian children have died at the hands of their US adoptive parents. Children from other countries, such as Hana Alemu Williams from Ethiopia and Hyunsu O’Callaghan from South Korea, were adopted only to be beaten to death by their new parents.

While people of faith will always disagree on certain points, we can all agree that “rescuing” a child only to kill him or her is not sound Christian theology. Abuse, re-abandonment, and a host of other issues are particularly damaging for children transplanted to the US without family, friends, or familiarity with the culture. Reuters published an investigation last year of “rehoming,” or advertising on the internet for new parents to take in adopted children. Most are internationally adopted children, many of the placements were with parents involved in inappropriate treatment of children, and all were illegal evasions of procedures meant to keep children safe. An example of an advertisement to “re-home” a child:

“We adopted an 8-year-old girl from China… Unfortunately, We are now struggling having been home for 5 days.” The parent asked that others share the ad “with anyone you think may be interested.”

Think about that for a minute. Who scours the internet, looking for pictures of children? Who would most likely snap up a vulnerable child without any friends or family to make sure he or she is safe?

That a new parent would want to get rid of a child after only five days is chilling, and books like Becoming Home exacerbate the problem. True Christian caring for orphans, meaning children who have lost both parents, means stepping back from emotional reasoning and instead taking a hard look at the negative consequences of missionary work (and international adoption began as an overseas missions effort). Kathryn Joyce has written a book, The Child Catchers, on how the evangelical push to adopt children has placed many at risk. If we want to put parentless children into adoptive homes, we must ensure their safety. Absolutely no negotiation! Quick adoptions that result in dead children are far worse than doing nothing at all. We want to improve children’s situations, but we must tread carefully and go in prepared.

Becoming Home promises to give a clear look at what it terms “the orphan crisis.” It has chosen adoption, particularly international adoption, as the solution for this problem. It gives a kindly “I’m sure you meant better” pass to Laura Silsby, who kidnapped 33 Haitian children–who were not orphans–under false pretenses and without any legal authority to do so. It neglects to mention the Hague Adoption Convention (an international agreement signed by 89 countries that pledge to ensure safety of children who are adopted internationally) or adult adoptees who have been deported when their adoptive parents failed to acquire US citizenship.

Becoming Home, rather than providing a lay reader with a brief overview of the many issues surrounding orphan care from a Christian perspective, instead serves as propaganda to push readers to help finance or begin their own international adoption.

Propaganda has its place, and I have no quibble with a publication that seeks to encourage international adoption. What I find distressing, unethical, and downright irresponsible is to promote an action without equipping its readers with tools to prepare for that action. I would be wary of a book that exhorted me to climb Mount Everest or skydive without giving me a sober warning of basic safety issues. Worse, Becoming Home fails to warn prospective adopters of the risks to the very “orphans” they are trying to save. In the end, vulnerable children lose the most. Some have lost their lives, and even one is too many. That children living in biological families have also experienced abuse and murder is beside the point. As Christians, we must take our cue from the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

Conclusion: I had hopes for Becoming Home, but it failed to deliver. If you are looking for a beginner’s guide on how to wrestle with the needs of the world’s vulnerable children, you should look elsewhere.

Bonus additional reading: an earlier post on Masho, an Ethiopian child adopted to Denmark, only to be re-abandoned to a children’s home. Both of her Ethiopian parents are still alive.

  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.