Expertly portrays the sweetness and cringeworthy moments of childhood without going too far in either direction.
Vera Brosgol, an Eisner, Cybils and Harvey award winner for her graphic novel, Anya’s Ghost, has a new graphic novel out this week called Be Prepared. From the publisher:
All Vera wants to do is fit in―but that’s not easy for a Russian girl in the suburbs. Her friends live in fancy houses and their parents can afford to send them to the best summer camps. Vera’s single mother can’t afford that sort of luxury, but there’s one summer camp in her price range―Russian summer camp.Vera is sure she’s found the one place she can fit in, but camp is far from what she imagined. And nothing could prepare her for all the “cool girl” drama, endless Russian history lessons, and outhouses straight out of nightmares!
For over 10 years, Vera Brosgol was a storyboard artist for animation studio LAIKA, where she worked on the animated features Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings. If you’ve seen either of those films, I think you’ll find the tone in Be Prepared quite familiar. Not as innocent as a Disney movie, but not crass enough that it would keep me from letting my own daughter read it. It was well suited for the character of Vera, who, as a 9 going-on-10 year old girl, is making her way through that awkward transition from being a kid.
Although some of the plot points deal with Vera being from Russia and various elements of the Russian Orthodox Church, which contribute to her feeling like an outsider, it didn’t make the story any less relatable. The feelings Vera has of not fitting in and wanting to make friends, but not knowing how to, are universal I’d like to think, as everyone has to deal with those situations at some point in their life. Brosgol makes the the character of young Vera a believable protagonist by not making her a perfect victim of circumstance.
Her younger brother is reluctant to go to camp, but to Vera it seems he fits in much more easily than she does. Some of the things Vera does to try and make friends, particularly with the older girls she shares a tent with, involve actions she wouldn’t normally be proud of. She carelessly makes a remark about the appearance of a boy camper, with the other kids overhearing and use it to tease him with the new moniker. The boy was having just as much trouble acclimating as Vera, but loneliness is a powerful motivator and she finds a brief moment of acceptance she’s willing to take, even if it is at someone else’s expense.
Brosgol also does the illustrations in the book. She has a charming style that fits the material, particularly in how it captures the expressions of Vera and the other characters. It’s more cartoony than realistic — comparable to Bill Waterson’s style in Calvin and Hobbes, but not so fantastical that you would be taken out of the emotional elements of the book. The whole book is inked by Alec Longstreth in hues of green that fit with the camping theme, but don’t diminish the illustrations.
Is it good?
Be Prepared reminded me of a lot of my own experiences as a kid being dropped off at camps, school and sports with a bunch of my peers that I didn’t know. It’s funny that I’d forgotten that feeling, but Brosgol does an excellent job reminding us that some of the nostalgia we might have for our childhood is an incomplete memory. Be Prepared has portrays the sweetness and cringeworthy moments of childhood without going too far in either direction.