Sam is the main character of Melinda Johnson’s new chapter book, Shepherding Sam. He’s in third grade. Third grade is a tough year for some children. That’s the year that expectations ratchet up. You’re expected to be able to read with some degree of fluency. You’re expected to write legibly. You’re expected to sit still in your seat, listen to the teacher, comply with implicit rules.
Wait and See
In third grade, the children who have difficulties meeting these expectations begin to be seen as difficult children. Some of them, perhaps, have been considered difficult for longer. But doctors and schools don’t want to burden children with diagnoses that they may grow out of. They counsel a wait-and-see approach. So the parents, good people who love their child, wait and see.
And the happy, hopeful child begins to understand that he isn’t like the other children. He can’t do the things they do. He doesn’t know why. He’s told to try, and to try harder, and trying doesn’t help. He starts to see himself as stupid, as a failure. The other children ask him why he doesn’t pay attention. He doesn’t know why. He doesn’t want to be with the other children. It’s too embarrassing.
And the other children certainly don’t want to be with him.
If the parents are still in “wait and see” mode, the child begins to pick up other labels. On a good day, a kind adult might call him a little tornado. On a bad day, they call him mean. Hopeless.
From a sheep-herding dog’s perspective, these children just don’t fit in with their herd.
Whatever Sam was like when he was younger, he has become sullen and angry. So much so that when his Aunt Eva makes plans to take Sam with her children to visit a monastery, she feels compelled to warn the nuns that she’s bringing Sam.
It seems that Sam’s parents have been waiting and seeing. They haven’t yet figured out how to help him. His Aunt Eva tells the nuns that they are good people, that they love Sam. With other children, that would go without saying. But with children like Sam, it needs to be said.
Because if it’s not said, people assume things about the child and his family. If the child seems angry or ill-mannered, there has to be a reason. Maybe the parents are too strict. Maybe they’re not strict enough. Maybe they neglect the child, so he’s acting out to get attention. Maybe they’re helicopter parents, and they need to back off and give the poor child room to breathe.
Or maybe the parents are all right, and the child is just a bad child.
But Aunt Eva and the nuns know better. They know that Sam has good and loving parents. They know it will take time to figure out how to help Sam. And not just time. Aunt Eva seems to understand that Sam needs someone to accept him just like he is, to stand by him and to guide him without anger or criticism or expectations that he can’t meet.
Someone like Saucer.
A Dog is Better…
Saucer is the nun’s Corgi pup. Like all Corgis, Saucer wants a herd to take care of. And he especially wants to take care of the creatures that don’t seem to fit into their flock.
St. Xanthias might have been thinking about a dog like Saucer when he said, “A dog is better than I am, for he has love and does not judge.” Perhaps St. Xanthias knew a boy like Sam. Perhaps he had judged where he should have loved, and had learned to his sorrow that nothing good came out of his judgment.
Perhaps St. Xanthias was a boy like Sam.
Sam’s second visit to the monastery is on Bright Monday, so the first part of the book seems to have taken place during Lent. But Lent is never mentioned. Shepherding Sam isn’t a Lenten story. But I think it would be a great book to read with children during Lent.
As we pray the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian over and over during Great Lent, we ask God to teach us to see our own sins, and not to judge our brothers. Throughout Lent, we struggle to love, and not to judge. To be more like the Publican and less like the Pharisee. To be more like Zacchaeus.
To be more like Saucer.
From Sam’s Perspective
I raised a house full of children like Sam. They’re all grown now. But it occurred to me that someone who had grown up as Sam might not react to the book the same way I did. So I asked one of them to read Shepherding Sam, and to tell me what she’d have thought of it if she had read it when she was in third grade.
First, I had to assure her that the dog doesn’t die at the end of the book. She’s a dog-lover, and she’s read far too many books where the dog dies. I reassured her that the book ends with Saucer happily munching on a piece of bacon.
With that, she opened the book. The first thing she noticed was the typography. She struggled to learn to read because she struggles to control the movement of her eyes. To this day, she reads very little on paper. E-books are easier for her.[**] But she found Shepherding Sam to be easy on her eyes. The type was clear. There was plenty of space between lines. The printing was really well done, more like what you’d expect in a high-quality, expensive hardcover book than in a child’s paperback. Those things make a difference for her, and for many children who find reading difficult.
She didn’t care for the bickering among Sam’s cousins – that’s one place where she and I differed. I thought the bickering made them seem far more relatable and real than they would have been if they were always polite and well behaved. She’d have preferred to see them interacting with each other in more positive ways – even if it had meant they were working together to do something naughty.
And she adored Sister Katherine. She felt like Sister Katherine, even more than Aunt Eva, understood Sam. She seemed to know intuitively how to connect with him.
Shepherding Sam is a wonderful little book, perfect both for independent readers and as a read-aloud.