With so much great all-ages content out there and more arriving every week, whether you’re a parent, teacher, librarian or young reader, sifting through it all can be a daunting task. Of course, tastes and reading lists are subjective and even change over time. With an ever-growing collection of newly released and classic books, Multiversity’s Bookshelf Basics is designed not only to give you a place to start, it’s a resource to return to as your tastes and interests change. In today’s installment, we look at “Be Prepared,” an autobiographical graphic novel by Russian American cartoonist, Vera Brosgol.
Written and Illustrated by Vera Brosgol
Colored by Alec Longstreth
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!
Okay, Let’s Start with the Basics
Russian American animator and cartoonist Vera Brosgol is probably best known for her debut graphic novel “Anya’s Ghost,” the story of a supernatural friendship between two teen girls that features the weighty themes unrequited love and murder. Published in 2011, the book was well received by fans and critics alike, winning multiple awards, including a Harvey and Eisner. She also published a children’s picture book called “Leave Me Alone!” in 2016 and has worked in various capacities on animated movies such as Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” (story board artist) and the Academy Award nominated 3D stop-motion feature “The Boxtrolls,” for which she is credited with additional writing. Without a doubt, Brosgol knows the craft of visual storytelling and has met with success across the board, in every medium and role that she’s tried.
What’s It All About?
One glance at the book’s remarkable cover and you’ll immediately get a good sense of its subject matter and tone. Artfully framed by trees and tents, a wide-eyed tween girl stares back at the reader with a duffel bag at her feet, as though she couldn’t carry it one step further. Sporting a pained expression of bewildered disappointment, clearly she can’t help but wonder what she’s gotten herself into. Meanwhile, in the background, a blonde haired teen male heartthrob watches with practiced disinterest as a line of uniformed female campers march by in their matching olive drab outfits. Look a little closer and you’ll note that one of the girls is trying to make eye contact with the boy while one of her frenemies shoots her a look – the two of them vying for his attention. In a single composition, Brosgol has brilliantly captured the core story dynamic – that of an awkward newcomer desperately trying to fit into a well established social order that she doesn’t quite understand, much less want to embrace – as well as the classic dynamic of many summer camps.
Inside, the story kicks off quickly when our protagonist suffers a social crisis of such epic proportions that her school friends collectively flee her sleepover birthday party in the middle of the night without even taking their carefully curated gift bags. A quintessential third culture kid who moved to the United States from Russia at the tender age of five, Vera can’t help but fault her mother who fails to recognize the ultimate importance of serving the right kind of birthday cake and the right brand of pizza. Feeling like a misfit amongst her Anglo-American peers, Vera begs her mother to send her (and by default, her younger brother Phil) to a Russian themed summer camp where Vera assumes she’ll be less of an outsider and more like everyone else.
Needless to say, it’s not the paradise Vera imagined and things don’t quite go as planned. First, Vera’s older bunkmates are a pair of mean girls known as “The Sashas.” They’ve been attending the camp and bunking together since they were six and they have one major rule: “Stay out of our stuff!!!!” Also, when they’re not using Vera to draw pictures of their boy crush Alexei, they make fun of her for not yet wearing a bra yet or understanding feminine hygiene products. Much of the rest of the time, Vera battles mosquitos, imaginary wild animals and a foul smelling outhouse nicknamed Hollywood.Continued below
Even worse, Vera still feels like she doesn’t fit in. Her Russian accent is perfect, but her ability to read Cyrillic is far from it. Neither does she know all the words to the camp songs or any of the skills that could earn her prestigious badges. In short, she quickly feels like she’s no better off, merely having traded one set of outsider traits for another. Meanwhile, her little brother is having a blast with all his new pals. It all feels very unjust and really, she just wants to leave, but even that doesn’t work.
What Makes It Essential?
Ultimately, the plot is quite simple in this captivating and beautifully paced slice-of-life narrative. Nothing particularly momentous happens, but in the end, that doesn’t matter. Rather than focus on a single dramatic moment or major incident as coming-of-age stories so often do, this story is told through a series of masterfully rendered small moments that flow organically from one to the next. With pitch-perfect dialogue and a seamless visual flow, it all feels very real and incredibly relatable. To be clear, there is a satisfying climax and traditional “breakthrough” of sorts, but up to and including that moment, Vera is allowed to change and grow incrementally, rather than as the result of a crystal clear, unambiguous “defining moment.”
Similarly, despite the limited palette of olive and khaki green, the illustrations feel lush, rich and lifelike. You can smell the fresh piney woods and the musty canvas tents. You can hear the creaky floorboards and rickety cots. You can feel the soft heat of the campfire and the startling bite of the cold shower. And yet, throughout it all – as immersive as it all is – Brosgol never loses focus on the hero of the story – her large, expressive eyes peering out from behind her big circular glasses somewhere on every page as though we’re right there with her, every step of the way.
How Can You Read It?
“Be Prepared” is available at bookstores everywhere, as well as through online sellers and numerous ebook platforms. It’s a quick, engaging read, so pick up a copy and pass it along to your friends. I think it’s the kind of book you’ll want to talk about and come back to.
“Be Prepared” is world class cartooning. Brosgol tells a simple coming-of-age story with precision, empathy and wit. Not a panel is wasted as the story unfolds organically and intuitively, building by degrees to a satisfying conclusion.