What’s Left When Summer Ends
August 29, 2019 § 9 Comments
At no time more than summer do our children grow up. Camps, camping, gloriously long stretches of daylight, ample opportunities at exploration and courage and boredom…all of this combines to ensure that the children we send back to school in the fall are not quite the ones we ushered in summer with.
I was ill prepared for the onslaught of emotions I would feel upon picking up my oldest from his first sleepaway camp experience in Maine. As we slowed along the gravel road though the camp entrance, my excitement of the past 24 hours turned to butterflies. How would he seem? Would he look different? Would he have made friends? Would he burst into angry tears and declare he was never coming back?
We didn’t have to wait long: he was standing alone not far from the entrance. I waved frantically, shouting at my husband to stop the car so I could jump out. JP smiled broadly as I threw my arms around him, but something was immediately apparent. He was quiet. More upright than I’d remembered. More reserved than I’d expected.
As he led us on a tour, JP answered our onslaught of questions calmly, occasionally pointing out landmarks. He waved casually at other kids and counselors. He talked about his favorite activities, mentioned the midnight “candy raid” his counselors had taken him and his cabinmates on the night before. He instructed his sister on which rocks were best for climbing when she ran ahead. I marveled at the composure of the child who walked beside me, who hadn’t seen or talked to us in two weeks but seemed almost stoic in our presence. Possibly he’s just exhausted, I thought.
As the hours progressed and we ate dinner and readied ourselves for the closing ceremonies, JP let slip a couple of other details about his experience. It became clear that he had struggled socially at times, particularly with his cabinmates, around whom he had sometimes felt like an outsider. He had had his trust betrayed by someone he thought a friend but who leaked a secret. The details were scant and vague, and I realized we were unlikely to get much more on a subject painful for him to recall. And yet, his counselors had been really helpful, he told us. Next year, he added, he hoped for better luck at making friends.
I let out a tiny sigh of relief that there would be a “next year,” but I was also aware of a heaviness settling around my heart. As parents, we never like to think of our child in pain, especially 600 miles away. But it was more than that. Whatever had happened these past two weeks (hopefully, more good than bad), this journey had been his and his alone. His dad and I hadn’t been along for the ride, hadn’t been there to pick up the pieces. That was good. That was right. But it didn’t make it any easier for me to bear.
At the end of the night, we watched JP give one of his counselors a prolonged goodbye hug, which left both of them crying. Here was a special bond, I realized. Here was where JP had turned for support, shared things we’ll likely never know. Our son isn’t just tired, I thought, with a mix of sadness and pride; his life has expanded.
Our children’s newfound independence and self-knowledge are mostly cause for celebration. But they’re also bittersweet for those of us used to little hands in ours, used to sharing in our children’s every confidence. Even our kids themselves, who find themselves on the precipice of a new school year—a little older, wiser, and more capable, but still small against the mightiness of the world—might feel some mixed emotions about growing up. They’re poised to step into a new year, but they know from experience now that it won’t be easy.
For all these reasons, I felt a bit overcome when I first read Camp Tiger (Ages 6-8), an extraordinary new picture book written by Susan Choi and illustrated by John Rocco. If there was ever a picture book that perfectly captured the end of summer—the change in light; the subdued energy; the trepidation over things to come and anticipated nostalgia for the most magical time of the year—this is it. Choi’s command of language, coupled with Rocco’s atmospheric art (we loved Blizzard, but his art here is jaw-droppingly gorgeous), translates into a powerful meditation on what it looks like when a child’s inner life is vastly richer than the stoicism he presents to the world.
Our protagonist-narrator is a rising first grader, accompanying his parents and older brother on their annual early-September camping trip to Mountain Pond—a beautiful, quiet place, “like a mirror in the trees.” As his family scurries around making camp, the boy hangs back, lost in his thoughts. Only we readers are privy to his internal dialogue: his wishes that the camping trip will “never end”; that first grade won’t start; that he could stay a kindergartener forever with things like “choice time.” All summer, things my mom used to do for me—like make my bed in the morning or fold up my clothes—have become things that I have to do myself. I can do them, but I wish she would do them.
Then a mysterious stranger appears at the campsite. A tiger. A talking tiger. Not a silly, cartoonish talking tiger you might find in a typical children’s story. This exquisitely realistic tiger has a majestic air. He moves slowly, deliberately. He’s smaller than a normal tiger, about the size of a German shepherd, observes the boy. He comes with a single request: “Do you have an extra tent?” asks the tiger. “I have a cave, but I still feel cold.”
While everyone in the boy’s family can see this magical tiger, it’s clear to us that he’s there for the boy. (He’s just the right size, after all.) It’s almost as if the boy summoned him during this awkward “in-between” time: between summer and fall, between kindergarten and first grade, between staying little and growing big(ger). Suddenly, the boy is quick to embrace his independence. After his father sets up the extra two-person play tent he has brought on the trip, the boy follows the tiger inside and quickly zips up the flap. I wrap my arms around him and bury my face in his fur. He smells like sunshine and pine needles.
All weekend long, the tiger accompanies the family on hikes and canoe trips. He makes all of them marvel and laugh together, but his presence is most keenly felt by the boy. For the first time, the boy dares to fish, even though he knows he’ll never catch as many as his brother will. “I love fish,” says the tiger. “I’ll eat any fish that you catch…I’ll eat it raw…I like to eat the whole thing and feel its tail swish around in my stomach.”
The tiger’s presence also heightens the boy’s awareness of the natural world, reminding us how nature can comfort and nurture our internal dialogue. On the final night of the camping trip, as the boy watches the embers of the fire, he speaks aloud a wish “to go in the canoe, in the dark, and look up at the stars.” No one seems to hear but the tiger. “I’ll take you,” he says.
The pages that follow show a different side of our boy. He runs, he roars, he charges. He steers the canoe himself. It’s quite possibly the most glorious final romp of summer you could ever imagine. Still, at the same time that our hearts are soaring alongside the boy’s, we anticipate the coming sadness.
The tiger, we understand even before the boy does, cannot stay. The same way that summer cannot stay. We wake up and vacation is over; it’s time to pack up and return. We must live with this sorrow. We must step boldly into fall, turn our sweet summer memories into the fire to propel us into a new year. Summer waits for us, always around the corner, ready to leave us touched again in startlingly mysterious and beautiful ways.
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Tagged: animals, boy main character, camping in children's books, chidlren's independence as theme in picture books, favorite illustrators, friendship in children's stories, John Rocco, magical realism, nature, Susan Choi, theme of growing up in children's books, tigers, transitioning back to school