Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Be Prepared

I have never been to summer camp, and I am not of Russian descent, but I sure found a lot to relate to in reading Be Prepared. This tale of Vera, a 10-year-old girl who strives to fit into American culture is full of empathetic moments, moments of levity, and the pathos of being a tween. The artwork is impressively expressive, and it suits the well-paced and -plotted narrative beats to a T.

Vera's mother is Russian, in school, and trying to make a better life for her and her children. Vera is trying to keep up with her middle class American friends, which in her mind involves buying stuffed crust pizza, the right brand of soda, and the right kind of doll, as well as hosting slumber parties. None of those things are on her mom's radar. And what's worse her versions of all of them are uniquely Russian-themed, and to Vera's (and her friends') sensibilities completely off-brand and embarrassing.Vera's solution is to go to summer camp, just like her friends do, and she convinces her mom to send her brother and herself off.

The camp she goes to is not what she expects. It's a special camp for children of Russian lineage, and they celebrate that heritage in specific ways. Also, because of her age, Vera gets assigned to the older girls' camp, so not only does she not know anyone there, she's also the youngest girl and living with two of the oldest girls who have been going to the camp for forever. Consequently, she has a tough time making friends and simply wants to go home. Also, she has to shower and go to the bathroom in an outdoor toilet, which is a disgusting and unsavory experience.

Over the course of a few weeks however she does learn a few things about herself and how to (and also not to) make friends. She also earns a bunch of merit badges. Looking back at what I've written, it now seems that everything I've described looks pretty formulaic and familiar, but I feel that this book has a specific charm and delivery that makes the proceedings vibrant and new. The characters are not one-dimensional but nuanced and interesting. And by the end of the book, I felt very attached to them, which left me yearning for more because the ending is open-ended.

This book's creator Vera Brosgol is an accomplished illustrator and animator. She worked for Laika on a number of animated films like Coraline, The Boxtrolls, and Paranorman. She also has published a children's book Leave Me Alone, which won a Caldecott Honor, and the graphic novel Anya's Ghost, which won an Eisner Award. 

All of the reviews I have read of this book have sung its praises. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "While the culturally specific references will particularly resonate with kids of Russian heritage, the larger story will strike chords with any kid who has ever struggled to find a place to belong." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and concluded, "By turns sardonic, adorable, and noble, Vera is a beguiling hero who learns how to recognize who's really on her side." Elizabeth Bush wrote that "Brosgol's illustration skills fully match her convincing narration in this autobiographical graphic novel."

Be Prepared was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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