Gift Guide 2018: My Favorite Graphic Novel of the Year

December 15, 2018 § Leave a comment

Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared (Ages 9-13), about the horrifying, hilarious, and (occasionally) happy moments spent at sleepaway camp, is my favorite middle-grade graphic novel of the year. (I should add that it’s followed very closely by the subversive rags-to-riches The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang, but since I’m running out of time, you’ll have to take my word on that one.) Brosgol’s novel, told appropriately through an army green color palette, is a fictionalized memoir of her own childhood experience at a Russian Orthodox sleepaway camp in the early ’90s; and it tugs at our heartstrings as much as it cracks us up. Because even though her camp is at times a horror show, Brosgol nails what it’s like to be away from home at such a trying and impressionable age.

My friends (occasionally readers of my blog, too) have heard me gush about how the eight weeks I spent every summer at an all-girls sleepaway camp in Vermont were some of my favorite—and most formative—parts of my childhood. But I miiiiiight gloss over the less-glamorous moments. Like the very first night, when I tried to ignore the pit of homesickness in my belly and climbed up into the top bunk, only to come nose to nose with a mouse perched on the rafter. Or the fact that I still have the scar from when, on the way back from a middle-of-the-night trip to the outhouse, I tripped on a rock trying to outrun a skunk I felt sure was chasing me. And those are just the animal stories. To say nothing of the times I fought with my best friend and thought I would die from loneliness.

But then there were days when I’d walk barefooted down to the pond, linking arms with other girls and singing at the top of our voices. And oh, did I mention the singing? There was the table-thumping mealtime singing (the louder the better), followed by the quiet campfire singing on the archery field at dusk. There was waking up each morning to the cool, crisp smell of pine needles and the prospect of choice: how would I spend today?

In Be Prepared, nine-year-old Vera is tired of not fitting in during the school year (“too poor,” “too Russian,” and “too different”). Her wealthy friends have sleepover birthday parties, which Vera’s own single mother can never replicate (it’s supposed to be a Carvel ice cream cake, not a charity handout from a woman at church!). Most maddening, these girls take every occasion to brag about the posh sleepaway camps they attend in the summer.

But then Vera gets wind of a church-sponsored Russian sleepaway camp near a lake in Connecticut (crafts! canoeing! singing! bonfires!) and convinces her mom to send her and her younger brother for what turns into four weeks. At last, she will do the things her rich friends do! She packs her bags weeks before departure, and she can hardly contain her excitement when her mom turns down the private dirt road to the camp. “It felt like entering another country.”

Only nothing about Camp ORRA (Organization of Russian Razvedchiki) matches any of Vera’s fantasies. For one, there’s no candy allowed. For two, there’s wood to chop, no running water, and an outhouse nicknamed Hollywood which would scare the poop out of anyone. For three, you’re supposed to speak in Russian…and sit through long church services…and attend daily classes on Russian history. Oh, and the horseflies are as big as birds, and there are mysterious heavy footsteps outside your tent when you’re trying to sleep.

And then there are Vera’s bunkmates: two camp veterans who are best friends and four years older than her (translation: they wear bras and use maxipads).

Still, Vera—proud, resilient, and a tad feisty—is determined, not simply to grin and bear it, but to “beat” it. She will win over her obnoxious, bossy, boy-obsessed bunkmates if it’s the last thing she does (even if it means breaking a camp rule). She will steal the flag from the boys’ camp and become a legend among the other girls. She will earn top badges for her wilderness knowledge. She will figure out how to poop in that outhouse.

Only somewhere along the way, Vera begins to realize she is focused on all the wrong things. There is a true friend—a slightly younger girl, who takes an interest in Vera’s prolific sketching—right under her nose, if she would just notice her. There is a chance to appreciate, even embrace, her Russian heritage. And there are the woods, with opportunities for freedom and mystery and wonder.

Vera’s summer isn’t anything like what she envisioned. But, like the best summers, it is ripe with self-discovery, growth, and an appreciation for modern plumbing.

 

Published by First Second. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

This holiday season, I’m running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see them. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly beg you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

Dancing Outside the Comfort Zone

July 9, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra BoigerSomewhere along the way, in our frenzy to make sure our children are anything but ordinary, we’ve stopped letting them be bad at things. So fervently do we want them to feel the taste of success from an early age (as if this guarantees them achievement later in life), that we steer them almost immediately in the direction of things at which we believe they’ll excel.

With so many of today’s children starting instructive activities at younger and younger ages, joining in a few years down the road can feel to a child like everyone else is light years ahead of him or her—a daunting prospect at best. And we parents get squirmy around daunting. We fear the fallout of failure, despite contemporary psychologists berating us, Failure is good! Failure is critical! It’s through failure that children learn how to stand firmer on their own two feet!

What’s stopping us from all holding hands and letting our children outside their comfort zone?

Cue the power of summer camp. For ten summers, I attended the same sleep-away camp in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The camp was the opposite of fancy (“It’s homey,” my New York City mother announced dubiously the first time we pulled in.). But I adored how laid back and accepting it was. As a camper, you could wander into any activity. As a counselor, you could teach virtually any activity (skill secondary to enthusiasm). Fortunately, my parents weren’t sending me there to master tennis or horseback riding or to emerge at the end of the summer with perfectly glazed pots that might justify the hundreds of dollars they were spending.

That camp became a haven for me. A place to experiment. To discover and be embraced for who I was. And I failed constantly. I failed to advance to the next swimming level. I failed at fighting off homesickness. I failed at having the right frayed jean shorts. I failed at friendships. There were no parents around to lecture or moralize or pick me back up or interfere on my behalf. And, boy, did I love it.

There are still moments in my life where I would give anything to run out my problems in bare feet across that giant archery field, flanked by the beauty of the mountains.

In addition to its nostalgic camp setting, Tallulah’s Tap Shoes, the newest in the charming picture book series by Marilyn Singer and Alexandra Boiger—and my personal favorite to date—does a magnificent job of exploring a girl’s growing pains at starting (and not necessarily succeeding at) something new.

Last summer, I sung the praises of Deer Dancer, Mary Lyn Ray’s picture book aimed at creative, free-form movement, the kind of dance that my then three year old was loving in her weekly class. At almost five now, my Emily can no longer resist the tutu, and she is begging for me to enroll her in “real” ballet classes this fall. Which puts her in deep infatuation with the Tallulah books (not to mention their glittery book covers).

Don’t let the shimmer fool you: these stories are rich with substance. If Deer Dancer was about exploration, the Tallulah books (Ages 5-9) are about the discipline of dance. They follow young Tallulah from her days in a beginning ballet class (Tallulah’s Tutu); to her ambition to perform (Tallulah’s Solo and Tallulah’s Nutcracker); to her struggle on pointe (Tallulah’s Toe Shoes); to, finally, her broadening her repertoire at dance camp (Tallulah’s Tap Shoes).

The best thing about these five books is that they NEVER SHY AWAY FROM RAW, HUMAN EMOTION. On view is the full spectrum: the lovely and the not-so-lovely sides of Tallulah’s personality, which grows more complex with each year. We get her determination, her passion, her focus, and her compassion. As well as her jealousy, her disappointment, her impatience, and her haughtiness.

She is a perfectly imperfect role model for our children.

By the time Tallulah’s Tap Shoes comes in the sequence, Tallulah is sitting confidently in the saddle. That is, she has established herself as a skilled and accomplished ballerina. She can’t wait to board the yellow school bus to dance camp, where, between swimming in the lake and making friendship bracelets, she can excel in ballet lessons to her heart’s content.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

But there’s a catch. She also has to take tap lessons. And she knows nothing about tap.

Tallulah runs the predictable gamut of reactions. She begins by dismissing tap as “baby stuff” that will be easy to pick up. But then she watches green-eyed with jealousy as a girl with “shiny black hair,” who has been taking tap for as long as Tallulah has been taking ballet, can make seemingly effortless music with her feet.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

Feeling like she alone is constantly on the receiving end of the teacher’s criticism, Tallulah becomes convinced that she has turned from being the “best student” in ballet to the “worst student” in tap (the dramatic flair is strong in this one). In one final defense mechanism, she decides tap is not worth doing if she can’t do it well, and she begins to skip her lessons, hiding out in the Arts and Crafts cabin and pretending that she doesn’t care a smidgen about any of it.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

All the while, there is a parallel dynamic at work. The black-haired girl is having the exact same reaction to her struggles with ballet, similarly convincing herself that it’s not worth her time, while secretly feeling disheartened and embarrassed. The two girls strike up a competitive but ultimately redemptive friendship, as both begin to see themselves reflected in the other. “You’re not the worst,” Tallulah assures Kacie. “Not at all…Teachers always correct everybody.”

“Well, you aren’t the worst in tap,” Kacie told her. “If you keep practicing, you’ll get better. Then you might love it. And we could even take lessons together.”

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

Tallulah returns to tap, practicing her flap steps (which, like the ballet steps in Singer’s other books, are detailed on the endpapers of the book to the absolute fascination of my daughter) until they begin to sound louder and clearer. And Kacie gives ballet another shot, demonstrating more control over her glissades. Neither girl is the best at her new sport, but neither is the worst. In fact, what they discover is a broad and beautiful middle ground, previously invisible to both of them.

Maybe I’m right where I’m supposed to be, Tallulah thought. For now.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

What if we free our children to explore, even embrace, this middle ground? Will they try more things? Will they learn more about themselves? Will they enjoy life more?

It’s perhaps no coincidence that there is little to no parental presence in Tallulah’s Tap Shoes. The girls work things out on their own and with one another. Together, they create an existence acceptable to both of them. A place where they can excel, fail, hang out in the middle, or—even better—do all of the above.

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Review copy provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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