Saturday, October 10, 2009

What Jamie Saw

I just finished Carolyn Coman's What Jamie Saw, a short novel (126 small, wide-margin, large-print pages) about a third-grade boy, Jamie, who sees his mother's boyfriend, Van, take his infant sister (Van's daughter) out of her crib and throw her across the room in anger. Jamie's mom catches her, and they pack up and leave Van right then.

This is also a novel featuring an amazing teacher, Jamie's third-grade teacher, Mrs. Desrochers. Jamie likes her, and third grade is much better than second grade, "when he had had Mrs. Gimber and everything felt stale and hard and what he knew best was how much he wasn't very good at."

Mrs. Desrochers comes to the trailer that Jamie and his mom and little sister eventually move to after they leave Van. She shows up after Jamie hasn't come to school in a couple of weeks, and Jamie's mom, Patty, lets her in, but "Jamie knew she was hating it as much as he was--and he even liked Mrs. Desrochers. He was remembering that just then, that he actually liked her, the way she didn't make him feel stupid. She just wasn't supposed to be there."


"You visit all the kids in your class who get sick?" Patty said. She sounded to Jamie like she was trying to pick a fight.

"No," Mrs. Desrochers told her. "I don't. Just the missing in action."

"Listen," Patty told her, "this is a good place for us, we don't need any help. Jamie's safe here."

"I believe you," Mrs. Desrochers said, and after she said it, it was like there was nothing Patty could say back. The fight Patty was trying to pick was a fire that couldn't get started, and Jamie didn't know what would happen next. "He's safe with me too," his teacher said.


Jamie is sent to watch TV while they talk, but "He knew how Mrs. Desrochers talked to people, how she didn't say things as if there was an answer and she was the only one who had it. She was going to talk that way to Patty--she already was--and Patty would go over to her. Jamie knew that." Jamie is right, of course. Eventually he hears his teacher say, "Jamie needs to be in school if I'm going to find a way in... I believe there's a way in or I wouldn't teach. But I need my kids to show up."

When she leaves, Patty tells Jamie he has to go back to school, and says that Mrs. Desrochers is "all right. She'll help us."

"Help us what?" Jamie wanted to know. Did they need help?

"Oh, Jamie," his mother said. "You know. Just help, give us a hand."


This is one of those chapter books for kids that I think everyone should read, especially those of us who spend lots of time with kids; never hurts to be reminded that kids appreciate people who don't "say things as if there was an answer and she was the only one who had it." It's beautifully written, with details drawn so clearly--the kind of details most of us don't notice, or leave out.

What Jamie Saw also made me think about audience, because it seems to me to be a book that would be very difficult for most children this age, especially if they were reading it to themselves on their own. It could be a great read-aloud, but I could see it being a very controversial read-aloud choice for a classroom teacher. I'm not sure an older child would choose it on their own, though it might be best for an older elementary student. And, as a huge fan of children's literature myself, it's a novel I only ever ran across when I posted to a children's lit listserv asking for suggestions of novels "for middle-grade readers, maybe fourth, fifth, or sixth grade, talking about an abusive relationship between a mom and a dad? Doesn't have to be central to the story at all, just present or even referenced" even though it's a Newbery Honor Book.

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