5.05.2014

Nerd Camp 2.0 by Elissa Brent Weissman, 282 pp, RL 4


Nerd Camp 2.0 is the follow-up to Elissa Brent Weissman's Nerd Camp, with fantastic cover art, once again, by  Harry Campbell. This is Weissman's fifth book for young readers as well as the fifth book by her that I have reviewed! In all her books, Weissman has a way with presenting an "everyman" sort of character who, even with the unique traits and situations s/he has, is completely relatable. From the small, seemingly meaningless decision to wear two different socks to school to a new classmate with the exact same name to a math lesson utilizing the stock market, Weissman's characters find themselves in challenging - but realistic - situations that cause them to evolve over the course of the story in meaningful and satisfying ways. In Nerd Camp, when we first meet Gabe he is ecstatic to learn that he has been accepted into SCGE - the Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment (a stand-in for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth where Weissman, a Johns Hopkins graduate, once taught) also referred to as Smart Camp for Geeks and Eggheads by kids who do not attend. Gabe is also thrilled to be getting a long-wished for sibling, by way of his dad's remarriage. Zack is the same age as Gabe, but that's where the similarities end. Zack surfs, skates and texts and thinks that anything having to do with academics is boring and nerdy. Sensitive to this, Gabe spends his time attempting to be interesting and fun to Zack while also hiding his true self. Gabe's Logical Reasoning class at SCGE prompts him to try to determine if in fact he is a nerd who only has nerdy adventures. At camp, Gabe finds his tribe and the answer to his problem while enjoying every second of his six weeks away. When his Zack is there to pick him up at the end of camp, Gabe is no longer worried about what he will think of him.

This is a good thing, because when Nerd Camp 2.0 begins, a year has passed, summer is approaching and Gabe has helped Zack convince his mom and step-dad to send him to sleepaway camp. Zack has chosen Camp Seneca, which has a rock wall and a skate park among other things, and is just down the road from SCGE. When wildfires sweep through the region and parts of Camp Seneca are damaged, they are invited to relocate on the grounds of SCGE. Understandably, the campers at SCGE are upset. Camp is the one place where they can be completely, 100% themselves without fear of teasing and bullying, which they are sure will arrive with the visiting campers. Sadly, the SCGE kids are right in their assumptions and both Zack and Gabe find themselves alternately opposing and empathizing with the other side as tensions (and actions) escalate. With Nerd Camp 2.0, Weissman alternates chapters between Zack and Gabe's perspectives, which is especially interesting as things heat up. Zack, who has come to genuinely like Gabe while still finding aspects of his personality a odd, is upfront with his bunkmates about the fact that his step-brother is at SCGE, but swayed to go along with, or at least keep his mouth shut, when the Seneca kids talk smack about the nerds. Alternately, with the SCGE kids on the defensive from the start, Gabe finds himself engaging in similar putdowns and plotting when the SCGE kids begin to feel threatened by the attitude of the Seneca kids as a shared free time turns into a territorial dispute. The SCGE kids tactically reclaim their territory and go on to stage a Nerd Pride Parade that makes them even bigger targets for the Seneca kids, with Gabe himself becoming a target. As the final, all-camp celebration, meant to show the Camp Seneca's appreciation for their host, SCGE, nears, the strategizing and attack planning reaches a fever pitch.

As with Nerd Camp, Gabe struggles and finds solutions and resolutions through the classes he is taking. While Logical Reasoning and Poetry with the very cool Mr. Justice helped him the previous summer, "Research Methods" and "Heroes of Our World and Imaginations," also taught by Mr. Justice, prove very useful as Gabe tries to finds ways for himself and his fellow SCGE campers to enjoy their time at camp to the fullest in spite of the Seneca kids. While "Research Methods" gets Gabe off to a seemingly good start, it is his "Heroes" class and the challenge to do something heroic that really gets him thinking. When Gabe tells his new bunkmate, Three O'Clock (there is a great story behind this nickname), that "Heroes are heroes because they're fighting for something they think is so important they're willing to risk everything for it," he discovers that he hasn't known what he has been fighting for all summer. Gabe does realize what it is that he does want to fight for, making the final chapters of Nerd Camp 2.0 an exciting back-and-forth that results in a climax involving chocolate fondue, molecular biology AND molecular gastronomy and a ghost chili pepper (which has over 100x the heat of a jalapeno) and a great resolution.

Along with authors like Andrew Clements and Julie Bowe, Weissman has established herself as an author who tells the stories of real-life, relatable kids, defying stereotypes and sharing experiences that are the kind of everyday drama that readers will identify with. This is especially refreshing in a time when books that tell the real-life stories of kids seem to fall into two categories - Wimpy Kid-type diary fiction with humor derived from humiliation and the perennial Newbery contenders that have important but difficult plot details that involve the death of a parent or sibling, divorce and personal struggles that arise from physical challenges. Sometimes a kid wants, even needs, to read a book about kids being kids...

Source: Review Copy

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