Review by Juhyun Tony Bae
Balzer+Bray, HarperCollins Canada, 2019
256 pages, paperback, $15.99 CAD, 978-0-062-85107-9
Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7
Middle Grade, Contemporary Realism, Graphic Novel
I stare at my phone.
There it is. Everything I worried about but hoped wasn’t true. In a text. I’m in such shock, I can’t even cry. Funny—I think my body is starting to go through all that fight-or-flight stuff, but from the outside, you probably can’t tell.
Middle school is tough. I mean, sure, the school part sucks—the teachers and homework—but you can kinda control your grades by working hard. The real challenge is the other kids. Depending on your friends and enemies, school can turn out to be a cool hangout or a nightmare. Everyone is changing (including you!), trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be, and that can make people unpredictable… even your best friends.
Terri Libenson’s graphic novel Just Jamie centers around the titular character as she attempts to navigate one of the worst days of her life. It’s the last day of seventh grade, summer break is just around the corner, awesome plans are being made, and her best friend is… acting distant? Jamie knows something’s off but could never have imagined that Maya, her BFF, would dump her from their friend group with a text. Jamie feels betrayed, confused, angry, and most importantly, lonely. She can’t even begin to imagine spending the whole summer break alone.
The story is told from two different perspectives, Jamie’s and Maya’s, and being able to see both sides of the story brings a great amount of depth to the plot. Maya isn’t simply being mean, she’s facing immense peer pressure to fit in with more popular girls: she sees that Jamie still doesn’t care about makeup, never keeps up with trends, and has a flat stick for a body. Maya’s story is a rollercoaster of ups and downs as she learns to judge what is important and what truly brings her happiness. Jamie’s story, on the other hand, is about recovery, making new friends, and forgiveness.
The thing I love the most about this novel is that it shows how sometimes we can the antagonist. We make mistakes—and that’s okay. We just have to be brave enough to understand what we’ve done and apologize. Being mindful of their actions and having empathy about how they may affect others is a critical lesson for middle schoolers as they start dealing with the social dynamics of teenage life.
The art is presented in full-colour. It switches styles between frame-by-frame comics while in Maya’s POV, and text narration with pictures while in Jamie’s POV, to support her sizeable internal dialogue. The styles flowed perfectly, and even in the more prose-heavy sections, never got bogged down thanks to the expressive artworks. It is adorable with the right amount of wackiness to portray what’s going on inside the teenage girls’ heads.
Just Jamie might not be the most original story, but it is great on every level. It has a well-developed cast of main characters that support the plot with the emotional depth that it demands. Even I, a mid-20s man, found myself feeling emotional and relating to these teenage girls. So, yes, I’d wholeheartedly recommend this book.
Juhyun Tony Bae is a Korean-Canadian writer currently studying at UBC. He’s been working on a dystopian YA novel that he says will be completed between the next one to fifty years. His work has been published in Grain, FreeFall, and Wax Poetry and Art. You can follow him on twitter @jTonyBae.