Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol. First Second, 2018. 9781626724457.
Gene: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol, the very delightful Vera Brosgol, who I met at a dinner during Emerald City Comic Con and talked to for a bit. I loved Anya’s Ghost and… and what was her picture book about knitting?
Sarah: Leave Me Alone, which was so great.
G: She was also on a panel that I moderated. Vera lives in Portland and worked in animation, and this is her second graphic novel… Anya’s Ghost was more YA.
S: Yeah, and this one is a little more tween-y.
G: Maybe even a little younger. The protagonist is Vera when she was 9. The story is not quite factual, and she explains that in detail at the end of the book.
S: She combined a couple of years of summer camp into one.
G: There are some charming real-life things, like real letters from camp. The first one says “Dear mom, could you pick me up as soon as you get this? PLEASE! I’m desperate” (Only later on do you find out that that one was actually written by her brother.)
S: And later there’s a much, much longer real letter from young Vera that talks about how terrible camp is, all the kids are mean, I can’t deal with this…
G: It has the feel of an autobiography. I think it’s very autobiographical in terms of feelings, if not in terms of actual events. I believe she really grew up pretty poor, a Russian immigrant, going to Russian Orthodox church…
S: It was these tiny little differences between her and her friends that made her feel like a complete outcast.
G: The birthday party scene.
S: Oh, the birthday party scene! It’s heartbreaking.
G: It’s so clear that Vera is the little girl that the other kids’ parents talk to.
S: Yeah. There’s a scene where all the girls are setting up their cute flowered heart covered sleeping bags and she has a pillow and blanket with a patch on it.
G: And the other girls arrange themselves in a star shape together on the floor and she’s off by herself. And they all have these super-expensive dolls that they’re talking about and she doesn’t have one. It’s brutal and really well done.
G: And then she has her own birthday party that does not go well. You can see it’s not going to go well. Her family is poor, her mom’s a single mom, so they have the off-brand pizza, there’s Russian lettering on the cake. And the other kids are terrible about it all.
S: Do you have memories like that from elementary school? Where it was the tiny differences that kids would be completely obsessed with? I was the kid that the parents talked to at the party.
G: I wasn’t the kid the parents talked to. I fear that I was a kid who was inadvertently terrible. I had no worries when I was a kid, but we didn’t have a lot of stuff, either.
S: There are things like that I remember from my own life, I could feel so apart because I didn’t have the right brand of pants or something like that. My family wasn’t poor, we were just spending money on things other than pants.
G: My mother was very focused on us having those things even though she was a single mom, probably to a crazy extent. I had the right brand of jeans, she used to make me wear velour shirts because they were cool. She was wrong on some things, too. I think she was doing her best, but it was strange and hard to push back against it all until I was a teenager. I want that book to be written, too. Where a kid is forced to be the on-brand kid even though he doesn’t want to be.
But, back to the story, one of the big differences between Vera and her friends is that they all go away to camp in the summers while she’s stuck at home.
S: But one day at Orthodox church another girl says that she was gone last week because she was at camp. And Vera’s like “CAMP???” Turns out the Orthodox church sponsors this camp and might be willing to help her mom pay the fee to send her to camp for TWO WEEKS!
G: So she gets to go the next year, the summer after fourth grade.
S: And she’s so excited.
G: And her brother goes to the little kid part of the camp.
S: And at the end of the book she talks about how this organization was set up outside of Russia after the revolution to maintain this traditional sort of camping with a religious background because it was prohibited in the Soviet Union. It was interesting that she went into a camp with these fully-formed camp traditions that were totally unfamiliar to me as the reader.
G: It’s really cool, right? If she went to the sort of camp we recognized from movies, like Meatballs, it would be very different. Instead they go to a place where all the kids who go are different in the same way, but then she’s thrown in with these older girls.
S: Those girls!
G: Her little brother goes off with a camp counsellor who’s amazing, but hers is a seventeen-year-old girl who seems out of her depth. Her brother has a great time. The other girls in Vera’s tent are fourteen, and she’s this pre-pubescent nine-year-old girl. The girls are both named Sasha, they’ve been to camp together for years, and they’re totally crappy.
S: They’re obsessed with a cute boy at camp.
G: Very says goodbye to her mom, then finds out about the Hollywood.
G: My favorite part of the camp, the doorless outhouse. Three toilet seats, right next to each other, no divider. There are so many toilet gags in this book. The one where she’s in there and she looks up and there are spiders all over the ceiling.
S: Uuuuugh! It has the air of a vivid sense memory.
G: It’s terrible, because she’s really alone for two weeks, she wants to go home, the girls are crappy to her and hiding candy, she’s feeding a chipmunk, they’re washing their hair in the lake. There’s a capture the flag game going on between the girls and the boys… it’s getting just a bit better, bordering on bearable, and then her mom comes to take her home… and says she has to stay two more weeks!
S: That was a great plot twist, I enjoyed that a lot.
G: Other stuff happens, plot-wise. More capture the flag. There’s a missing hamster. She makes a friend. It’s really sweet.