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The Secret Life of Sam

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The timelessness of Bridge to Terabithia meets the wonder of Big Fish in this bittersweet, magical story, perfect for fans of Barbara O’Connor, Lisa Graff, and Dan Gemeinhart. When Sam’s dad dies in a car accident, Sam is shuttled off to the dusty town of Holler, Oklahoma, to live with a long-lost aunt. There he encounters a mysterious mangy cat who leads him to an unassuming tree that turns out to be a portal—a passage through which Sam can revisit his old life for a few minutes at a time. Sam’s visits to the bayou become stranger and stranger. Pa’s old stories unfold around him in beautiful but sinister detail, and Pa is not quite himself. Still, Sam is desperate to find a way for them to stay together—no matter what it takes.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published September 29, 2020

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About the author

Kim Ventrella

6 books110 followers
KIM VENTRELLA loves infusing everyday settings with a touch of magic. Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. Her most recent middle grade novel, THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM, was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2020. BONE HOLLOW was chosen as a Best Book for Kids 2019 by New York Public Library, and SKELETON TREE was nominated for the 2019 Carnegie Medal in the UK. She is also a contributor to the middle grade horror anthology, DON'T TURN OUT THE LIGHTS. She is a former librarian, Peace Corps Volunteer and a lover of all things strange and creepy. When she's not writing, she spends her days ruling over a seaside garbage dump and her nights helping vampires remove all that excess glitter.

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5 stars
27 (24%)
4 stars
48 (43%)
3 stars
25 (22%)
2 stars
7 (6%)
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3 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 28 of 28 reviews
Profile Image for Darla.
3,342 reviews524 followers
September 23, 2020
The grief of losing a loved one -- especially a parent--is a burden no child should ever have to endure. When it happens, children respond differently. Sam's response to a new home (with a previously estranged aunt), new town, new school, etc. seems authentic for a boy of his age. What is not normal is being able to fall into a hollow tree trunk and visit your dead dad. The temptation to keep dad with him in this world or stay with dad in the tree world is nearly irresistible to the point that Sam nearly gives up on making any progress with his aunt and new friend from school. I thought Sam's habit of referring to those things he deemed cussworthy as being "grape -soda" this or that. It got a bit old, though. I do love, love, love the cover and the nod to Colonel the legendary gator in the story. Sometimes a bit more gruesome than I had expected, so would not recommend for readers under the age of 10.

Thank you to HarperCollins and Edelweiss+ for a DRC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Sarah.
163 reviews2 followers
November 22, 2021
I think this just wasn't my cup of tea. Some of the language felt forced or maybe just foreign to me with the southern flare. It took me awhile to figure out what some of the repeated phrases meant, and it also felt like I should already understand them. That aside, the characters did have depth and their interactions rang true.

Sam's father has passed away and he must leave his home to live with his Aunt that he hasn't seen in years. There is a reason for that which we do learn. After the first day in his new school Sam discovers a way that he can still interact with his father, but we quickly learn that it is temporary, which Sam refuses to believe. Would recommend for someone interested in stories of traveling through grief or large fans of stories with a heavy southern leaning.

**Will note that I listened on audio, and the accent was just not my favorite, but the narrator did have talent!
Profile Image for Skye Bluewater.
168 reviews21 followers
February 19, 2022
Exploring Sequoia portals launched my imagination and hope to read stories like this one.

Orphaned Sam plucked my heartstrings as he climbed through a beckoning portal tree and learned to survive his overwhelming grief. I especially loved the portal revealing truths about his mother that proved his mystical experiences weren’t imaginary. Superb tale with eerie explanations, but not too spooky for middle grade readers.

"Stories were about what had happened, sure, but they were also about what you wanted to believe, and about the parts of your life you wanted to pass on."

Profile Image for Kristen C.
376 reviews49 followers
April 3, 2022
I find I have to go middle of the road on this one. It was okay, but it was not what I was expecting after reading the synopsis.

I read this as a read-aloud with my 7.5 year old son. He loves daring adventures, and I thought that's what I was getting with this. I was expecting an fantastical adventure book aimed to help a grieving child come to terms with his father's passing, and it was...sort of. Where I was expecting to "see" his father's unbelievable stories play out in this other dimension as indicated in the slightly misleading synopsis, we really are only shown one or two. The rest Sam discovers in the real world by going through some of his dad's old things. The majority of the book is Sam trying to figure out how to stay with his dad, either by bringing his dad back with him through the portal or by staying in this other dimension with him. Sam is written really well, and I think that any child mourning the loss of a parent would find him relatable.

Another thing I found misleading with the synopsis was the use of the adjective "sinister." If you're worried about this being too dark and scary, the only really scary thing is the description of the cat's teeth as razor sharp. The portal world does contain a rather fierce crocodile and giant dragonflies the size of cats, but that's about the sum total of the scary stuff.

From one parent to other parents reading this review to determine fit for their child, it is worth mentioning some language is used occasionally throughout. While Sam uses the "swears" his dad used, calling things grape soda, calling people blue jays, etc., there is some use of the d word, sexy, and use of the Lord's name in vain. I was able to gloss over these things in reading aloud, but if you intend for your child to read this on their own, now you know what's in there. Side note, the made up swears were cute at first but got old really quickly, particularly "grape soda."

The book tackles some very heavy topics that could be triggering, mostly grief and the loss of a parent, but also substance abuse, PTSD, and complex family dynamics. I felt like the book handled these topics very delicately and respectfully in a way that can be easily digested by middle-grade readers. Ultimately, much of this went over my 7.5 year old's head, but the exposure to these things is a solid way to build empathy in children who haven't had to live with these things, and give representation to those who do.

Overall I found the book to be pretty depressing. I held on for a while hoping that it would get more hopeful and less bleak, and it did, in the very last few pages of the very last chapter. It was quite cumbersome to push through for me, and I can imagine middle-grade readers might struggle as well, deciding to shelve it and start something else, which would be a shame because those hard topics above are so needed in children's literature for the reasons I already mentioned, and that would be a shame. That said, I could be way off base. Either way, this was just not a book I cared much for, and my son agreed.
Profile Image for Lauren.
57 reviews
November 2, 2020
Kim Ventrella’s The Secret Life of Sam paints a moving portrait of a grieving young person with care and compassion. In addition to Sam’s grief, Ventrella also tackles other challenging but relevant topics, such as the effects of and recovery from addiction. The author does so with sensitivity and understanding, creating a realistic portrayal of life’s myriad complications. Ventrella’s characters, all who assume the White Default, are engaging and layered. In fact, readers may be left wanting to know more about characters like Aunt Jo and Edie by the book’s end. In addition, The Secret Life of Sam’s dual settings are a powerful avenue for Sam to cope with and overcome his grief. While one setting is magical in nature, Ventrella pulls readers in and out of this setting with ease and the time constraints of Sam’s visits build tangible suspense. By the end, Sam’s final visit, though emotional and heartbreaking, may leave readers unfulfilled due to the priceless but scant few minutes allotted to tie up all the loose ends. Certainly, readers will want more, but in this case its limited telling reflects the realities of real life, where desired endings rarely materialize. Just as Sam’s ache slowly dulls over time so must a reader’s desire for a lengthy and neat closure.

The Secret Life of Sam presents a meaningful opportunity to engage young people that are experiencing a loss. The novel is descriptive, engaging, real yet magically spooky, and filled with heart. The Secret Life of Sam would be a great addition to upper elementary and middle grade literature circles, exploring themes of loss, grief, or friendship.

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and publisher, HarperCollins, for an eARC of this book!
April 2, 2020
I have the honor of being on Kim's Street team for this book and received and ARC.

Oh my goodness, all the feels.

Sam has just lost his father and has to go to grape soda Oklahoma with his grape soda Aunt Jo. He doesn't want to be there and he doesn't want to let go of his Pa. He finds a magical tree to visit Paand finds out more about his stories. As he learns more he begins to open his heart to Edie and Aunt Jo and even grape soda Oklahoma. But will Sam learn to enjoy his new life and say goodbye or hold on to Pa forever?

I loved Sam. I loved Aunt Jo, Pa, Edie and Mr. Redding. The descriptions were beautiful and spot on for a bit Sam's age. I loved the descriptions of the Louisiana Bayou and the flat plains of Oklahoma. I truly felt transported to small town Oklahoma. The Colonel and the cat were great additions. I just can't say enough great things about this book. I love the comparison from Orange Crush being good and grape soda being bad.

This book is excellent for anyone going through a loss. Kim has a knack for writing about tough subjects in a magical and a little bit spooky way. Working through the grief with Sam and going through the portal with him while he ignored his new life was a great comparison to how I have felt with grief. I personally found this book help me work through my own grief in my personal life as I am grieving for having to move. Not as hard as losing a parent for sure, but still change is hard.
Profile Image for Shana OkieCozyReader.
874 reviews31 followers
March 24, 2023
Oklahoman Kim Ventrella wrote this book about a boy whose father has died. He moves to small town Holler, Oklahoma where he discovers a portal through a tree into an underground tunnel in which he can communicate with his father.

Most of the book is this longing to stay with his father, so it is an emotionally difficult book to read. But it may speak to other kids who have lost a parent and want the same.

I listened to the audio and it’s read by a man with a southwest accent. I could somewhat see it through the eyes of a child, but somehow it didn’t quite work for me.

I don’t know if I would recommend it younger than 5th grade.

“…how maybe if Holler, Oklahoma, started to feel like home, to really feel like home, then one day he’d forget about Pa altogether. And what then? Then he’d move on and that would mean he’d never really loved Pa in the first place. That would mean that his whole life, everything he and Pa had ever done together, would be a lie.
Except that would never happen. Sam was going to get Pa back.”

“…you’ve been given a rare opportunity. The chance to say goodbye.” Ch 13

“I don’t know anything for certain. There is so little certainty to be had in this world, but I know that sometimes when people die, we have to let them go. Not stop loving them, not forget about them. Just let them go.” Ch 16
32 reviews
July 6, 2020
Sam’s dad passed away unexpectedly in a car accident, and he has to move from Louisiana to a small town in Oklahoma to live with his aunt Jo. Aunt Jo has been missing from his life for four years, so she’s almost like a stranger to Sam.

His dad always said that dragonflies were good luck. Sam is astonished when he sees clouds of dragonflies around an old hollow oak. He also sees a grungy, distinctive one-eyed cat who leads him into the tree, and into another world where he can visit his dad for a little while at a time. The visits become stranger and shorter, and Sam soon has to make a choice about what he wants to do.

This stunning novel explores the devastation of losing a loved one and finding the courage to let go of what once was in order to embrace what is. This is a powerful book to explore grief, addiction, friendship, love, and home. It would be a wonderful literature circle/book club book. It is a much-needed addition to school and classroom (and well as home) libraries.

Thank you to Netgalley for the eARC in exchange for an honest review!
234 reviews12 followers
June 19, 2020
A beautiful, creepy story full of family, forgiveness, friendship, hope, and learning to let go. I really appreciated that the mysterious cat and trips into the Bayou were left dreamy with no real explanation as to how Sam was able to visit with his deceased father or what exactly the middle place was. The "other world" connection was just the right amount of creepy. The settings of Sam's past life in the bayou (enhanced by Pa's tall tales and adventures) and Sam's new life in Holler, Oklahoma are brought to life in this story.

At first, Sam is desperate to find a way to bring his father back. But each trip into the bayou brings up more history from the past, and Sam must decide to live in the past or move forward in the future as he learns more about his Aunt Jo and makes a new friend in Edie. Addiction and recovery is a another theme in the story along with grief, life, and death. #LitReviewCrew
Profile Image for Candice.
Author 13 books22 followers
September 9, 2020
This was absolutely cover-love at first sight, putting me in mind of Swamplandia! and Tumble & Blue.

Sam's pa has recently died in a car accident and Sam's aunt Jo has come to collect him, taking him from his Louisiana bayou home to dusty ol' Holler, Oklahoma. Sam's grief dictates his actions, but the voice is so well done and charming (for instance, he can't cuss so says grape soda instead) that his grief doesn't overwhelm the story. Definitely leads to some heart-squish moments as Sam and Aunt Jo (who carries her own pain) get to know one another again, and he meets Edie, a purple-haired girl from school who Aunt Jo hires to help out at her meetings.

And then there's the tree that leads to memories of home and to Pa, and the dragonflies, and a creepy ghostie cat! So much to love in this story of loss and finding yourself again.
Profile Image for Nicole.
131 reviews
June 27, 2020
I had the honor of reading an advanced copy of Sam and am so glad I did. The story truly does hint at the world of Bridge to Terabithia but with a contemporary edge. Ventrella expertly weaves in touches of her spooky style which dominates many of her previous novels. This one, though, has much more heart. I’d definitely recommend it to middle readers looking for something that is different from the norm while still filled with substance. Well done.
32 reviews4 followers
September 14, 2020
Follow along as Sam works through grief and heartache that follow the death of his dad. I really enjoyed the way the author portrayed the feelings of grief through the eyes of a young boy. This book would be an incredible discussion starter. I think it would be especially meaningful for kids who have experienced the loss of someone they love, but it would also give great insight for those who haven't experienced that firsthand. I really enjoyed this book!
Profile Image for April  Chauvin.
79 reviews5 followers
November 27, 2020
THis was a lovely written book about a little boy dealing with the griefs of loss in our life. I love how the story reaches out to teach a lesson to children of middle age group on such a powerful thing in life. This was a story children can relate to and it is definitely a book I will get for out Louisiana library. You do not have many books speaking of the bayous of Louisiana.

Thank you netgalley and harpercollins
1,137 reviews6 followers
December 27, 2020
I loved the suspense and the magic and the longing and the hope in this book. When a child loses a parent I can only imagine there are a lot of things he will do to have one more moment or have a chance to stay with them. Sam was definitely the main character and all the other characters were truly supporting characters. Their parts were brilliantly written to enhance story and support the storyline but they didn’t take over or distract from it. I will recommend this book.
16 reviews
August 6, 2020
This book! Unforgettable characters dealing with loss, forgiveness, saying goodbye, and that fragile line between life and actually living. Order a copy for your middle grade kiddos - coming out on 9/29/2020.
Profile Image for Hoover Public Library Kids and Teens.
2,599 reviews55 followers
March 15, 2021
When Sam's Pa is killed in an auto accident, Sam is whisked away from Louisiana to live with an aunt he hasn't seen in four years. But her home in Holler, Oklahoma has something he didn't expect -- a hollowed-out tree that acts as a portal to Bayou St. George . . . where his Pa is still alive.
Profile Image for Fleur Bradley.
Author 6 books195 followers
March 19, 2021
A sweet, magical middle-grade story about loss, that's full of heart. The author knows just how to draw the reader in, with beautiful prose, a little ghostliness, and captivating characters.

Recommended for your avid kid reader.
Profile Image for Joni Sensel.
Author 15 books41 followers
May 6, 2021
I wanted to like this book more and did like Sam, though he was a bit prickly for understandable reasons, but to me it felt like the Southern gothic "weirdness" theme was really forced and struggled to relate as a result. Just not my cup of tea, but maybe it's yours.
Profile Image for Tiffany.
913 reviews
September 3, 2022
Great middle grade read by an Oklahoma author with an Oklahoma setting. Sam is a recent orphan that comes to live with his aunt that is a veteran that lost a leg. He has trouble letting go of his Pa.
February 20, 2021
A mysterious ride that will keep you captivated and wanting to rush to the end, all while hoping the end doesn't come to quickly! Thanks for the ARC for #bookposse.
Profile Image for Cy.
7 reviews
March 4, 2022
I love the way this book deals with grief but I don't think Sam should've liked Edie. It adds nothing to the story!!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
April 18, 2022
Although this book had a rough start, I felt it redeemed itself in the end. Good for younger YA... maybe grades 5-7ish.
Profile Image for Dru.
1,287 reviews8 followers
June 29, 2022
A great bit of magical realism as a boy tries to get over the death of his dad while living with his aunt he hasn't seen in years.
Profile Image for Jessica Gard.
260 reviews6 followers
September 26, 2022
This was very enjoyable middle grade novel. It felt very similar in tone and subject to Big Fish, and that is meant as a huge compliment.
21 reviews
October 7, 2021
A touching story about grieving and how life has a way of moving forward, even if we don’t feel ready to let go of the past. 13-year-old Sam loses his dad in a car accident and then is uprooted from his home in the Louisiana bayou to live with his estranged Aunt Jo in dusty old Holler, Oklahoma. The death of his father combined with the loss of everything familiar leaves Sam with what feels like an insurmountable level of grief, yet through the compassion of his Aunt Jo and new friend, Edie, Sam finds his way forward. A strange cat leads him into a magical old oak which turns out to be a portal to his old life, where, for a few minutes at a time, he can see his father and everything he knew. This magical link to his past feels very alluring at times, but ultimately helps Sam to say goodbye so he can embrace his new life.
Profile Image for Abigail Singrey.
431 reviews33 followers
June 30, 2020
When Sam’s dad dies, he has to leave everything he cared about - his dad, their boat and their home on the bayou - to move in with an aunt he hasn’t seen in years. But through a secret door in a tree, he finds a way to spend afternoons with his dad again. Even if that means ditching the cute purple-haired girl who wants to work on a science fair project with him. But ultimately, he’ll have to choose between trying to stay with his dad and a new life that’s starting to feel like home.

Somehow simultaneously both heartwarming and creepy, this book tugs on your heartstrings! You may cry, but in a good way. The author did a great job pulling you into Sam’s world and filling it with a cast of quirky characters you won’t want to leave behind!

I read an ARC passed on to me by a friend.
Displaying 1 - 28 of 28 reviews

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