Tuesday, July 27, 2010


First off, let me just begin by saying how awesome it is to be back in the collective WIN of the YA-5. We've all been galavanting and adventuring, and it's nice to be home for a change.

Now, there's something about a return to the rhythm and pull of an established routine that makes me think back to those first writing assignments of the year that elementary school teachers always make you do, and always with the same ever-so-clever title: "What I Did Last Summer".  This is what I did this summer: I went to Space Camp.

Remember Space Camp? 

Well, that's not exactly where I was. Instead, I participated in a workshop called Launch Pad, a NASA-funded program that gets a bunch of science fiction authors and editors together and gives them a crash course in astronomy. We listened to lectures, played with spectrometry machines, read like fiends and played with telescopes at night. I saw the rings of Saturn, guys. And counted the craters of the moon. I learned terms like spaghettification (what happens to matter when it crosses the event horizon of a black hole. Clarification: it ain't pretty), and that you can survive the vacuum of space for two whole minutes (though you'd lose consciousness after twenty seconds) and that light does some funny things when assaulted by gravity.

But mostly, for the first time in my life, I actually had fun at camp. Which brings me to the subject of this post:

The Camp Novel.

Now, I'll be honest here and admit that I've never much cared for the camp novel. I seem to recall one of the many Attractive-Big-Sister-Dies-Of-Leukimia-While-Unattractive-Little-Sister-Carries-On novels that littered the shelves when I was a teen having at least part of the action happen when the main character was at summer camp. I remember more than once throwing one of those books at the wall - but I was known to do that sort of thing.

But why camp? It stands to reason, I suppose, from a writer's standpoint: You get the kid away from the pressures of the day-to-day and force them to confront whatever needs confronting. I get that. It's kind of lazy, but I've had to do it with my own characters, too. Still, the summer camp novel seemed to carry with it a load of baggage with which I could never identify. They were too rich. Too suburban. Too mono-ethnic. And far too separate from my own experience. I grew up in a family where money was an issue. I went to an incredibly diverse high school. I could see absolutely none of me in those books.

But all that changed for me when I read this book: 

Oh, Louis! You had me with Sideways School, you dead-rat-wielding wordsmith! But once I read Holes, I was yours forever!

I absolutely love this book. And I could talk forever about the fable-like quality to the writing, the exploration of the Other, the Dickensian patterning of the larger plot, the way in which the different layers of the story create all sorts of intertextually resonating goodness and how that book is generally dripping in Awesome Sauce, but right now, I'm going to focus on the aspect of camp. You see, for Stanley Yelnats - our hero - he chooses camp because he grew up poor, and because it represented everything that was denied to him because he was an outsider.

Camp represents for Stanley a chance to be something different than what he was - poor, geeky, fat, lonely and unlucky. What he discovers, though, is that camp is not an escape from the world - it is the world, boiled down to its elements. There still are sinister forces and bullies and true friends and fake friends and people you think you can trust.....but you can't. There's also heroism. And understanding. And redemption.

Actually, maybe we should take a break so we can go re-read Holes. 

Anyway, I've been thinking  about camp novels that work. Ones that stare Truth in the eye until Truth punches them in the face, and yet those novels never flinch.

Boot Camp, by Todd Strasser definitely fits the bill - a novel about a kid who's parents send him to one of those "behavior boot camps" for troubled teens......with terrifying consequences. Also, The Lost Summer, by Katherine Williams, a book that made me cry and cry. A friend of mine made the argument that Hunger Games was secretly a camp novel.

What are your favorite camp novels?

And while you're thinking of it, why don't we take a minute to take in the glory and riches that define the camp scenes in the second Addams Family movie, because they are cinematic gold, I tell you. GOLD!


Teh Awe-Some Sauce said...

The best camp novel I ever read was the Grounding of Group Six. I didn't like camp books as a whole because, well, for a kid who grew up in a trailer park, camp was not a part of my summers. Thank god for books.

But I would argue that Hunger Games is essentially a camp novel. It has the same feel, IMHO.

kellybarnhill said...

I have never read that one! I'm putting it on my library list instantly.

Georgia McBride said...

Kelly. I'm insanely jealous. I love astronomy and would love to have been invited. All of my urban fantasy novels contain aspects of astronomy and a tad of sci-fi. Also, my current WIP is called HOLES. We are on the same plane, my friend.

kellybarnhill said...

Georgia, you should TOTALLY apply for next year. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. And my fellow participants were nothing short of stunning and brilliant and marvelous.

Apps will open up again next March, so I'll be sure to alert you.

Emily said...

I grew up in a working class family and probably wouldn't have gone to Camp except for the fact that I already lived in Maine and there were camps EVERYWHERE. So I went to week-long camps twice. One was "conservation camp," which was just as hippie-dippy as it sounds, when I was 13. I also went to a girls math & science camp (nerdtastic!) when I was 14. But these are such atypical camp experiences, and I'm trying to write a camp book now, and struggling to figure out how my plot fits into the day-to-day routines of summer camp. So...I'm going to keep checking back in to see what people's favorite camp books are. I need to research!

I recently read Heather Waldorf's LEFTOVERS, which was published by a small press in Canada, Orca Books. It's about a girl who goes to a summer-long camp where she has to volunteer rehabilitating shelter dogs as punishment for wrecking her soon-to-be-stepdad's car. It turns out there was a very good reason she freaked out and stole the car, related to something horrible her real dad did when she was younger. I definitely recommend it, as it's a pretty different take on the "camp book."

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