Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol, color by Alec Longstreth, 256 pp, RL 4
Be Prepared is the second graphic novel from Caldecott Honor winning author and illustrator, Vera Brosgol and it perfectly captures that quintessential childhood experience of being taken outside of your comfort zone - your family - and learning to survive in an alien land, whether it is sleeping over at a friend's house for the first time, being sent away to summer camp, or moving to a new country, all of which happen to Vera in this mostly autobiographical graphic novel. As Brosgol, who was born in Moscow and moved to America in 1989 when she was five, says in her author's note, "Though some details changed a bit for dramatic purposes, the feelings are 100 percent true." And she does a phenomenal job getting these feelings on the page and making them immediately relatable to readers.
Brosgol begins her story with two birthday parties. Sarah Hoffman always has the best birthday parties, from the Carvel ice cream cake and the Pizza Hut stuffed crust pizza to the gift bag, "full of high quality-party favors." And, of course, it's a sleepover. She also does a wickedly funny parody of American Girl dolls, with Sarah getting things for her "America Doll," Complicity (rhymes with Felicity...) like a stomacher and a chamber pot. Vera's mom is going to school to be an accountant, and her father is out of the picture and not supporting his three children financially. Things are tight for Vera's family, but they are part of and supported by the Russian community in Albany, NY, where they live. And, it is this community that pitches in when Vera's mom agrees to let her have a sleepover birthday party. Of course, the Medovik tort and the pizza from Dimitri's are not what Vera was hoping for and her friends are so uncomfortable by these differences that they all go home in the middle of the night, unbeknownst to Vera.
Vera struggles to fit in with her wealthier, American friends, all of whom spend their summers at sleep away camp. When she learns of the decades old Russian summer camp in the woods of Connecticut that her church will help pay to send her to, she convinces her mom to send her and her younger brother, Philip, who is adamantly opposed to the idea. Camp is not at all what almost-ten-year-old-Vera was anticipating and, being stuck in a tent with two fourteen year old girls (both named Sasha) who have been going to camp for years together, further isolates her. Vera's eagerness and excitement for this unknown thing that she thinks will be amazing, and her subsequent disappointment with the reality of the situation are authentic and resonate, especially with me as I had a similar experience with the one week of summer camp I attended as a child. How the story plays out for Vera, her brother, who seems to fit right in at camp, immediately and happily, and her tent mates is engaging and rewarding, especially when the siblings have time on the drive home to talk about their true feelings.
Brosgol imbues Be Prepared with aspects of her Russian heritage, which of course is a large part of Vera's time at camp, where only Russian is spoken. There are moments where she shares aspects of her Russian Orthodox religion in the novel, especially the mystery and beauty of it. And there are more than a few jokes about borscht and bowel issues, which is to be expected when kids are using an outhouse nicknamed, "the Hollywood," that does not have a door. Brosgol has taken her childhood experiences and memories (she shares actual images of letters home she and her brother wrote and photos of her at camp) and crafted them into a story that readers will connect with, even if they have never been to summer camp in the woods. Be Prepared, regardless of how challenging Camp Orra seems, just might inspire kids (like I was) to want to go to summer camp!
More by Vera Brosgol!
Source: Review Copy