Cam Jansen: The First Day of School Mystery by David A. Adler. Puffin Books, 2002. Currently available.
Genre: Easy Reader Mystery
Face Value: It’s nothing special. Honestly, I had to search for the cover online because I read this one on my Kindle via the Greater Phoenix Digital Library. When I saw the graphic I was disappointed. Cam is lost in thought, which accurately captures her state of mind most of the time. But Eric’s presence on the cover is unwelcome. He’s always just hanging out while Cam solves mysteries. I don’t want him to steal the cover spotlight from Cam!
Does it break the slate? Yes! Who knew the slate could be broken in so few pages? Cam is assertive, smart, and always challenging adults’ preconceived notions about kids. She also is admirably persistent and doesn’t give up on a mystery, even if obstacles arise.
Who would we give it to? Highly observant beginning readers.
Review: Cam Jansen is notorious for her photographic memory. Although her given name is Jennifer, everyone calls her Cam – short for camera – because she can take ‘memory pictures’ with her mind. Whenever Cam captures an image with her brain she says “Click!” out loud. (I found this to be a bit outdated, because digital cameras don’t really make that sound anymore, but to change that aspect of Cam Jansen would be like dying Nancy Drew’s titian hair!) Cam uses her extreme awareness of detail to solve mysteries that usually stump adults.
One of those pernicious mysteries occurs on the first day of school. Cam, Eric, and their buddies are all on the school bus, which has been stopped in a traffic jam. The source of the traffic jam is a car accident – and the driver has run from the scene. As the children are herded off the bus to walk the rest of the way to school, Cam takes a mental picture of the crash and resolves to figure out exactly what happened there.
During their very first class period with their new teacher, Ms. Benson, the police come and inform Ms. Benson that she was responsible for the crash. This throws the classroom into turmoil, as the police cart away a protesting Ms. Benson. Cam is so wrapped up in the mystery that she finds herself revisiting her mental pictures, trying to find a way to prove Ms. Benson’s innocence.
Once Cam figures out some clues, she has to convince her awful substitute teacher (the heinous Mr. Day) that she has something important to tell the principal. Mr. Day is one of those terrible adult characters who never listens to children. None of his students respect him because he doesn’t respect any of his students. But Cam is too clever to let Mr. Day keep her from solving a mystery, so she orchestrates a situation that will allow her to make the next move and help Mrs. Benson go free.
Cam’s appeal comes from her dedication to solving problems that adults cannot handle. Adler writes characters with a hint of Roald Dahl anarchy. The children always seem to be smarter than the adults in their world. Cam has to pretend to do goofy kid things in order to get adults to pay attention, and then she surprises them with her observational powers. It’s always fun to read about a child character outsmarting an adult character – no matter what age you are as a reader!
My hands-down favorite moment of the book happened when Cam once again corrected an adult – but this time, she insisted that the adult should not rely on stereotypes to make a judgment. Here is that terrific moment:
“Dr. Prell turned. She looked through her window at the cars outside and said, ‘Whoever stole Ms. Benson’s car probably saw her park it. He knew she’s a teacher and wouldn’t come back until school was over. There would be plenty of time before Ms. Benson would notice her car was missing. By then he could be a long way from here.’
‘You said, ‘He knew she’s a teacher,’ and ‘By then he could be a long way from here.’ Do you know the thief is a man?’
‘No,’ Dr. Prell admitted. ‘I don’t know that.’
‘Women steal, too.’
‘You’re right,’ Dr. Prell said.
‘And the thief would be along way from here,’ Cam said, ‘if he or she hadn’t crashed into that tree.’”
I love it! Cam Jansen doesn’t let anyone draw conclusions without strong evidence to base them on.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a first day of school as exciting as this one. This easy reader would be a great choice to introduce those kids who are strengthening their reading muscles to a Slatebreaking character. Give them Cam Jansen and Marty McGuire and they will be primed for a lifetime of Slatebreaking reading.
Reviewed from library copy.