- Title: Samantha Sanderson at the Movies
- Author: Robin Caroll
- Print length: 272 pages
- Publisher: Zonderkidz
- Publication date: May 6, 2014
- Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
- 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- Craft refers to the level of writing technique, ranging from clarity of text to carefully edited prose.
- 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.