In my continuing effort to discern how learning differences have been featured in literature, I enjoyed reading Patricia Reilly Giff’s book, Eleven. Sam is just turning eleven and can barely read. As he puts it, “words look like spiders flexing their thin legs as they move across the page.”
Giff, a two-time Newbery Honor-winning author, deftly portrays in Sam both the heartaches and the triumphs that children with learning differences might typically encounter. Sam has strong emotions about his struggle with reading. He hates the stigma of going to the Resource Room every day and often gets in trouble for dawdling in the hall until he is late. He feels embarrassed that the other kids in the class are aware of where he is going and why. His reading difficulty becomes urgent when he discovers a box in the attic with a picture of himself at the age of three with a different last name, and the only word in the caption he is able to read is “missing.” Suddenly Sam’s identity is in question. Is Mack really his grandfather, or has Sam been kidnapped?
Sam knows he is going to need help reading the rest of the article, and when a book-loving new girl, Caroline, teams up with him to build a castle for a class project, Sam enlists her help. Mack, the man who Sam thinks is his grandfather, has taught him how to make things from wood and Sam seems to have developed a natural affinity for woodworking. “You read the wood,” Mack said, “and that’s something almost no one else can do.” When he is creating something in the workshop, Sam is relaxed and self-confident.
In the process of trying to figure out the mystery to Sam’s past, a lovely friendship is forged between Sam and Caroline. The instability of the itinerant life of her artist parents contrasts with the family life that Sam has with Mack and the two supportive neighbors who have helped raise him. Caroline is able to stay long enough to help Sam discover that Mack is, indeed, his real grandfather.
Triumph comes for Sam when Caroline insists he learn how to read so they can continue their friendship via email after she leaves. That coupled with the genuine awe both teachers and students have over the castle he created boost Sam’s self esteem to the point that he announces to his Resource teacher, “I have to read.” And you know that with that kind of determination, it is only a matter of time.
This is a story that will be meaningful to reluctant boy readers as well as girls, especially those who love to read and find meaning in helping others. It would also make a delightful classroom read, with good examples of friendship, patience, and the development of ones own talents and skills through persistence and hard work.
As a writer and a former teacher of learning disabled students, I appreciated how Giff demonstrated Sam’s honest frustration and discouragement, and the positive effects that the support of just one person, in this case his friend Caroline, had on his self-esteem and determination. I believe a crowning achievement of this book is Sam’s gifted ability to work with wood. It has been my observation that students with learning disabilities often possess some form of creative ability, whether it be music, art, dance, athletics, or in this case, woodworking.