Greg Baldino writes,
Reading Vera Brosgol‘s Be Prepared, her newest graphic novel, I realized I have no idea how we made friends as kids—especially pre-internet. You could become friends with someone because you lived close enough to visit each other, or you had a shared interest or activity; but those could just as readily be reasons to not get alone. It’s one of the things that makes growing up such an ordeal, you don’t know who your circle is. You’ve got your family, but not every family is great. And sometimes you don’t really realize what you need friends and family for and what they mean until much later.
I suspect Vera Brosgol knows, though. Be Prepared is a fictional graphic novel drawing heavily from her own experiences as a kid attending summer camp for the first time. She’s nine, and just had a pretty awful birthday party. (You know it’s a bad party when it’s a sleepover and you don’t wake up to the same number of guests you had when you fell asleep.) The camp is run by the Organization of Russian Razvedchiki in America, and all the kids come from Russian-American families, just like Vera’s.
The hope was that around other kids from Russian families she wouldn’t feel so much of an outsider. Except Vera’s actually the youngest camper there, and sharing a tent with two fourteen year olds, and the camping experience is running more rough and rustic than she prepared for. When her two week session is up, Vera can’t wait to get everything packed back up and go home.
Except her mom tells her she’s going to have to be at the camp for another two weeks.
Be Prepared is a fun and pleasant romp through someone else’s misery. It’s a transitory misery though, and by the end some things have actually gotten better. It’s also a look at how the culture of one’s heritage shapes your experience as a kid in America. A lot of the book is about Vera the character what it means to be Russian and not in Russia. It’s a part of her and her family, but growing up in a place where that identity has to be nurtured and preserved from within is exhausting. Her mother’s efforts to hold on to their identity as Russians is a source of embarrassment for Vera when compared to her classmates’ obsession with expensive American Girl dolls. But at camp, during a Orthodox liturgy, her eyes fall on the icons of Russian saints and, in one of the book’s more beautiful moments, comes to reflect on what life was like for her ancestors living through hardship and strife—even remembering how her own great grandmother died in a Soviet work camp.
Also there’s surprise animal encounters, and gross toilets, and capture-the-flag rivalries, because it’s CAMP.
Be Prepared is Vera Brosgol’s second graphic novel after the excellent Anya’s Ghost and really expands on what she can do as a comics storyteller.
Published by First Second, $12.99, available now
Greg Baldino made it through seven tours of summer camp, and boy does he really appreciate hotels now as an adult. His favorite knot is the butterfly hitch.