All Vera wants to do is fit in – but that’s not easy for a Russian girl in the suburbs. Her friends live in fancy houses and their parents can afford to send them to the best summer camps. Vera’s single mother can’t afford that sort of luxury, but there’s one summer camp in her price range – Russian summer camp.
Vera is sure she’s found the one place she can fit in, but camp is far from what she imagined. And nothing could prepare her for all the “cool girl” drama, endless Russian history lessons, and outhouses straight out of nightmares!
There are a few sub-genres of children’s books that I have long loved reading about: one being about adventures at boarding school, and the other being about experiences at camp. Maybe because I’ve only ever been to outdoor school once- and never summer camp!- I have always been curious to read about other kids camp experiences. And Vera Brosgol’s graphic novel Be Prepared, an autobiographical story about the author’s childhood experience at Russian summer camp, is all-around fascinating, unsparing, and touching.
Be Prepared opens with a poignant vignette: we meet eight (almost nine) year old Vera attending her friend Sarah’s birthday party. Vera carefully notes all the American factors of the time that make her friend’s party perfect: Carvel ice cream cake, stuffed crust Pizza Hut pizza, cool party favours, and a sleepover. As a few girls point out Vera being from Russia, her lack of expensive doll-of-the-moment, and their own plans for various summer camps, Vera starts feeling more than left-out. Readers then see Vera attempt- as dauntlessly as anyone could- to recreate the same ‘cool’ American party for her own ninth birthday and watch as things falter. When Vera and her younger brother attend a service at their Russian Orthodox church, Vera learns about and begs her mother to let her go to Russian summer camp. Finally, Vera thinks, a place where she might actually belong, where her being Russian won’t be considered strange! She’s going to finally have that elusive summer camp experience!
Except, when Vera and her brother arrive at the ORRA- Organization of Russian Razvedchiki in America- camp, things are not exactly what Vera had been hoping for. As Vera meets her older, disparaging bunk mates, gets a glimpse at the terrifying- truly horrid- outhouse, less-than-friendly conditions and witnesses her brother seem to have a pretty awesome time of things, she despairs. We then follow Vera as she weathers through an big error in judgment as well as major upsets and frustrations with her fellow bunk mates, her brother, and her mother. Not all is horrible or lost though, as Vera inches her way to a friendship with a younger camper and makes a daring, utterly brave nighttime search and retrieval. With a touching opening and introduction to Vera and her family- and some of their Russian traditions- Brosgol settles readers in to the core of the camp story easily and smoothly. Vera’s time at the ORRA camp is absolutely compelling; raw, sometimes funny, and reveals Vera’s struggle of being and feeling Russian yet not Russian enough at camp. The selective colour palette of the graphic novel- black, white, various shades of greens- works so well here and highlights both the outdoor component and often bittersweet nature of the story. Be sure to read the entirety of the Author’s Note and Word of Thanks at the end, as it all adds even more resonance and insight to the graphic novel.
Overall, what a memorable story; a fantastic graphic novel that is beautifully illustrated and terrifically told. I read Be Prepared in one big gulp, I could not put this one down! Brosgol’s adventures in Russian camp are unlike anything I have yet read, and seeing her amalgamated experiences come alive on the page really make for an affecting, honest read. Any readers who have clamored for the work of Raina Telgemeier, Victoria Jamieson, or loved titles like Cece Bell’s El Deafo, Jimmy Gownley’s The Dumbest Idea Ever, or Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s Real Friends might especially appreciate this title. Readers who have previously read and loved Brosgol’s storytelling and art in the Eisner Award-winning Anya’s Ghost or Caldecott Honor book Leave Me Alone! might want to check this one out! As Be Prepared ends on a wee bit of a cliff-hanger, I am wondering whether Vera Brosgol has plans for a companion novel? I for one would love to read more of her- and her family’s- story!
Take a peak at the book trailer:
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Raincoast Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.