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Book Review: Sam I Am, by Ilene Cooper. Scholastic Press; October 2004. 256 pages.
With the number of interfaith families in the United States rising, it's surprising how few fiction books consider the feelings and experiences of children growing up in an interfaith home. That alone makes Ilene Cooper's Sam I Am a welcome addition to any library shelf, whether at home, in the synagogue, or the public library.
In Sam I Am, a book for kids approximately 10 to 13, Cooper portrays 12-year-old Sam Goodman, middle child in a household that includes a college-age sister, a younger brother, a father who is Jewish by birth but has drifted away, and a mother who is loyal to her Christian holidays and beliefs. Sam grapples with the friction in his family that begins with the accidental destruction by the family dog of the family's traditional "Hanukkah bush."
Although this incident is the most awkward and contrived part of the story, the destruction of the Hanukkah bush symbolizes the end of an unspoken truce between Sam's parents about how Christmas and Hanukkah will be celebrated in the family. The stronger parts of the story come from supporting characters such as Sam's best friend Avi, who is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, and the popular girl on whom Sam has a crush, the blonde Heather Daniels.
Sam experiences the discomfort of the growing anger between his parents, the rivalry between his grandmothers for his interest in their religions, and the challenge of a school unit on the Holocaust, during which he discovers that his crush may not be worthy of his attentions. He's a believable kid with an authentic voice, and the description of his uncertainty in a situation involving his first kiss rings true.
The book jacket emphasizes Sam's attempt to converse with God about his predicaments, but I found this aspect of the book less interesting and ultimately less helpful than the simple portrayal of the challenges that face a young teenager in an interfaith family. No matter how much parents may resolve that their different beliefs won't pose a problem for their children, the time can come when the issue gets raised. At those times, a good book that reminds kids they aren't alone in their situation can be both a way to open a conversation as well as reassurance that their family can withstand the challenge.