5.01.2014

Nerd Camp, written by Elissa Brent Weissman, 261 pages RL 4

Just in time for summer, Nerd Camp
And coming May 5th
NERD CAMP 2.0!



Nerd Camp is the third novel from Elissa Brent Weissman, author of  Standing For Socks and The Trouble With Mark Hopper, both of which I loved. In all three of her books, Weissman creates rich, detailed characters with dilemmas that are both real and unique, giving the stories nice twists and turns. While I often profess to favor fantasy, a genre in which character development often takes a backseat to action, after reading a book like Nerd Camp I am reminded how satisfying it is to read a story in which you see a character, or characters, evolve and how gratifying it is to come to know a character so well by living in her or his head for a while. All three of Elissa Brent Weisman's books are a fine example of this experience. And, while the setting of a camp for braniacs might seem dry or ponderous, Nerd Camp is filled with interesting people and places and the summer camp experience is a vivid one, the Color War especially. Weissman has written a book that is both fun and funny, fast paced and frequently surprising. From the discovery of a secret lab where an older student is studying the life cycle of lice, leading to both an outbreak among the campers as well as an impromptu class on the Pediculus humanus capitis, to a visit by Alex Trebek to lead an all-camp game of JeopardyNerd Camp is hard to put down.

Gabe is a smart ten year old who, based on exam scores, qualifies to spend six weeks at the Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment. SCGE, known as Smart Camp for Geeks and Eggheads to some of those who don't attend it, sounds like a really cool place that most kids would want to go to if the really knew what it was like. As an interesting side note, Ms Weissman graduated from Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in creative writing, and is now a teacher at Johns's Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. Among other things, Gabe takes classes in logic and poetry and gets to kayak in the lake and participate in a Color War, the start of which is always a surprise to the campers and usually kicked off in a spectacular fashion. Gabe's time at camp makes a great story on its own, but Weissman adds an interesting facet to the experience by throwing Zack into the equation. The child of long divorced parents, Gabe has always longed for a sibling. So much that he begged his mother again and again to have a baby, to which she would reply, "You're enough for me, Gabe . . . You've got enough brains for two kids, anyway." Gabe gets his wish when his father plans to remarry Carla, mother of ten year old Zack. He is beside himself with excitement at the prospect of a brother who is his age and has "mentally compiled a whole list of funny stories to tell Zack." However, he revises his plans almost immediately after meeting Zack for the first time before the wedding. Zack is a texting, surfing, skate boarding kid who quickly makes it known that he thinks reading books is boring and anyone on a math team is a nerd. Sensitive to Zack's likes and dislikes and disappointed to find so many aspects of his life he can't share with him, Gabe tries his best to be interesting and fun to Zack. He finds himself "working hard throughout the day to keep Zack liking him," and stopping himself often from telling stories or sharing information with him. When, in the middle of a fitting for tuxedoes, Gabe's mom calls him to say he has passed the entry exam and qualified for SCGE, he is elated but reserved. He can tell Zack that he is going to sleep away camp because Zack, who isn't allowed to go until he is twelve, thinks it's cool. However, he can't discuss his class options (Cryptology, Rocket Science, Shakespeare, Statistics, Geology) over the phone with his mom because then he will know that Gabe is going to nerd camp.

Gabe's weekend with Zack gets him thinking. Is he a nerd? He knows that Zack wouldn't be friends with him if he was "nothing but a nerd." The night before he leaves for camp, Gabe gets out the notebook he has bought for his Logical Reasoning class and decides to turn his dilemma (and his summer) into "one big logic problem." The problem: is Gabe a nerd who only has nerdy adventures? The hypothesis: No. To organize his proof, he makes a two columned chart with the headers, THINGS I CAN TELL ZACK (I am not a nerd) and THINGS I CAN'T TELL ZACK (I am a nerd). For every seemingly nerdy experience Gabe has, he finds an adventurous or cool way to describe it to Zack in the letters he writes to him. When Gabe meets his bunkmates, Wesley, who solves math problems while talking out loud in his sleep, and Nikhil, who is extremely cautious and knows the first fourteen digits of Pi, the three bond immediately and quickly being sharing in-jokes and convince Nikil to help them learn the first fourteen digits of Pi before the end of camp. In his letter to Zack he only says that his "bunkmates are cool and we became friends right away." As the end of camp nears, the list grows to sixteen items with the last entry being, THINGS I CAN TELL ZACK - I kayaked to Dead Man's Island in the middle of the night / THINGS I CAN'T TELL ZACK - I read books about islands, I had a flashlight on my hat . . . But does it matter?

With the help of an initially annoying fellow camper who tells him that he always looks at things backward, Gabe learns to look at things differently. Chapter 27 is titled "Backward Logic," and that is exactly what Gabe uses to write his final poem, a sonnet, for his poetry class and work out his final logic proof. The revelation at the end of this chapter is so wonderful that I have to share it in full here.  Sitting on a stump in the woods near camp, looking for poetic inspiration, Gabe realizes,

He could look at his poem like a logic problem . . . and his logic proof like a poem. Solving a logic problem meant taking a whole bunch of facts - givens - and combining them to come to one solution. But writing a poem was the opposite. You took a big thing - the woods, say - and broke it down into small things - the smell of the leaves, the sound of the wind. Instead of looking at his nerd chart as a set of facts that needed to prove one thing or another, he began to look at it as a collection of memories and moments. When camp was over, he wouldn't just have one conclusion, he'd have all these fun and funny and crazy experiences. He could combine them to prove all sorts of different things or make any type of poem. And he'd remember every one of them - they were all him.

I love any book where a character comes to realize something valuable about him/herself (or an experience) and the fact that Gabe reaches his epiphany while pondering his academic pursuits is especially meaningful to me. As a lover of literature and art and all creative expression, I am a firm believer that these pursuits - from reading and writing to painting and beyond - help us to connect with and understand ourselves as well as the people and the world around us. While reading a book can do this, Nerd Camp is a kind of double happiness because you are reading a book about a character who does this!

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