Anyone who has tried and failed to fit in during childhood will find something to relate to in Vera Brosgol’s graphic memoir BE PREPARED. The book opens with 9-year old Vera, an eager and hopeful girl, at the perfect birthday party with a Carvel cake, a stuffed crust pizza, and “high quality” party favors. When Vera tries to re-create her dream birthday for herself, everything is just a little off. Her mother has tried to provide all the ingredients on a budget and with nods to the family’s Russian heritage. The cake is not a Carvel ice cream cake, but a Russian tort complete with Russian lettering, the pizza is from a friend’s pizzeria (no stuffed crust), and all the girls disappear overnight after phone calls home, and without taking their goodie bags. She feels “too poor…too Russian…too different.” The discomfort, desire to belong, and repeated, hopeful attempts at fitting in are palpable and cringe-worthy. Through it all, Vera is a remarkable example of perseverance and sensitivity – even if those qualities are not always consistent.
Convinced that she will finally find belonging at a Russian summer camp, Vera convinces her mother to send her for two weeks. From moment one, Vera’s excitement and anticipation about the adventures and joys of summer camp do not match with reality. Placed in a tent with two older and less-than-friendly girls, Vera feels as much of an outsider as she always has. Add no candy allowed, a threat of rabies, and a terrifyingly rustic outhouse, and Vera is soon hoping to be rescued from camp early.
Vera finds ways to cope with the various camp challenges (a secret bathroom! a chipmunk friend! sharing her art!), but setbacks make her doubt herself again and again. Even so, by the end of the camp experience, Vera has found ways to help herself and others survive summer.
BE PREPARED will entertain kids who dread summer camp as well as those who love it. It is told with humor, honesty, and very true-to-life observations about what it’s like to feel “too different” at times. While the graphic novel follows a female protagonist, there are plenty of universal situations for both boys and girls to recognize and relate to. Highly recommended for ages 9-12.