Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"I knew the party wasn't right.
"It was too poor. It was too Russian. It was too different.
"I was never going to fit in with American kids."
Following on from her spooky debut ANYA'S GHOST back in 2011, which is currently being made into a film, Vera Brosgol finally returns with an autobiographical tale all about cultural identity, being the perennial outsider and how you should go about the tricky task of making new friends, with the right people, and courageously showing us how she got it all wrong several times. (For more on that particular subject the brilliant autobiographical REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale & Leuyen Pham is a must-read.)
Growing up, Vera felt different from the other kids. Of Russian heritage, with her single mum studying to be an accountant and struggling for money, she never felt that she and her younger brother were the equals of their American 'friends', with their seemingly endless supply of top toys and lavish sleepover birthday parties. She soon began to feel like the tolerated outsider, rather than a central part of the gang, especially after a particularly underwhelming attempt at finally hosting her own sleepover.
Then, every summer, just to exemplify the disparity even more, her 'friends' would disappear off for the whole of July to various camps, leaving Vera behind, bored and counting the days until they returned. So, when she hears about a summer camp for kids of Russian extraction, organised by the Orthodox Church she's forced to attend, she begs and pleads with her mother to let her and her brother go. Her mother reluctant accedes much to Vera's delight, but insists on the compromise that they can only go for two weeks because that's all she can possibly afford. It is at this point, autumn...
As another school year tediously rolls by, instead of watching her friends get prepared and packed for their various extended summer excursions, it's Vera who's assembling all her necessary implements and accoutrements until finally she's ready to go. It is, however, at this point only the start of June... Do you think she's excited about it?!
Finally July comes around and the Brosgols are off. When Vera gets there, though, and is deposited into a tent with fourteen-year-old Sasha & Sasha (no relation), two long-term camp buddies who seem to delight in the fact that they've never had to put up with the same third wheel in their tent two years running, she begins to realise that some people are the same negative types wherever you go.
Despite her best attempts to make friends and become part of the 'in crowd' it seems likes she's only ever further exacerbating her social isolation with her continual faux pas. It's certainly no LUMBERJANES with their exuberant motto "Friendship To The Max!!" Plus, this particular camp... well, let's just say it feels more like a military boot camp with early rising, onerous chores, Orthodox Russian church services and forced marches. When the two weeks are up and her mum arrives to collect her, Vera is ecstatic, having endured a torrid fortnight, to say the least. And then promptly horrified to discover her mum, presuming she'd be loving her much begged for camp experience, has scraped together the money to sign her and her brother up for the remaining two weeks...
It's at that tipping point, that Vera finally realises she needs to change her approach, both to camp life and also making friends. Happily for her, the remaining fortnight proves far more fulfilling on both fronts. Sometimes, it really does pay just to be yourself, and let the (wood) chips fall where they may.
I've just flicked back through ANYA'S GHOST to see what changes or evolutions there have been in Vera's storytelling and it's only served to remind me of how accomplished her art and character development was even back then. I had actually forgotten that Anya was of Russian extraction and had a younger brother, so presumably she modelled Anya and her family on her own, which I never realised. Art-wise the main difference is that there is considerably more background detail here, which actually makes a huge difference in drawing the reader into the story and Vera's arduous experiences!
Definitely one for fans of Hope Larson's CHIGGERS due to the exploration of the trials and tribulations of friendship under the open skies, though I think - because this is a much more substantial work which also gets right into the particular rigours and rituals of summer camp life - it also strongly minded me of both Michel Rabagliati's PAUL JOINS THE SCOUTS and PAUL HAS A SUMMER JOB, which hilariously and very sweetly shows him semi-autobiographically experiencing the delights of life under the canvas from both sides of it, as excitable youngster and also emphatically wet-behind-the-eyes teenage camp counsellor. Consequently I really enjoyed BE PREPARED, and hopefully Vera won't leave it another seven years before her next work!