Brian is an energetic, intelligent, quick-witted seventh-grader who can solve a Rubik’s Cube in a few hours, but struggles in reading.
So when he burst into my classroom last week demanding that I read “Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightening Thief,” I could hardly say no.
His excitement was based on the movie version, which he’d just seen with a cousin, but he was sure the book would be just as thrilling.
Even though I was already reading three other books, I picked up “The Lightening Thief,” thinking it might appeal to many of my fantasy-loving middle school students.
From the first scene, Brian’s enthusiasm made sense. Rick Riordan’s lively, fast-paced story full of adolescent angst and conflict was built on realistic, sympathetic characters caught in a mythological-based fantasy worthy of capturing the imagination of anyone who’d ever been made fun of or felt different than their teenage peers.
That was my teacher’s assessment before I even made it to the part where Percy and his best friend, Grover, arrive at Camp Half-Blood.
Mythology and summer camp?
Granted, Percy’s camp was full of Greek heroes and mythological creatures, but the description of the camp, right down to S’mores, struck a chord with me.
It wasn’t the first young adult novel I had read referencing camp--“The Parent Trap,” “Holes” and “There’s a Bat in Bunk Five,” for starters, come to mind from my days as a young adult reader.
What struck me wasn’t the stories, but the reasons for the stories.
What is it about the environment and experience of summer camp that an author finds valuable enough to include in a story, or, in the case of the “Camp Confidential” books, to build an entire novel series around?
Consider these themes from the perspective of the adolescent or young adult:
• Wilderness and/or the lack of societal hierarchy as we know it
While there are (generally) guiding adults in summer camp literature, there’s a freedom in the setting of being away from the family and society rules that appeals to the imagination of the reader. What teenage reader hasn’t imagined or longed for a world without rules?
• The Unknown and Unfamiliar
Even if you’ve been going to the same camp for years, each year is a new experience in terms of people, activities and interactions. Summer camp stories are built on the premise of dumping a character who thinks they know themselves well into a situation where they find out they don’t know themselves at all, but must discover their own value based on the demands of the story.
• Unexpected Friendships
Every camp story involves making at least one new friend who changes the character’s perspectives of both life and himself as a person of importance. Camp literature often involves a connection between characters that helps unlock the essence of both people that would not have been possible in the real world.
• Changing for the Better
On the last day of camp, when it’s time to go home or when the character leaves, the parents are the same, society is the same, but the character has changed drastically. Characters have discovered positive elements of themselves that didn’t exist before and must find a way to continue to shine their light despite the cold, harsh constraints of the ‘”real” world.
I’m only halfway through “Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightening Thief,” but it’s far enough to know I’ll be adding it to my list of camp-related classics.
Any book that can excite a seventh-grader into reading is a definite keeper--pick it up and see for yourself.
For Your Camp Literature Reading Pleasure
A basic list of books where the intersection of camp life and literature make for a great story, regardless of age:
“Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightening Thief” by Rick Riordan
Percy Jackson’s arrival at Camp Half-Blood is the ending of one life--his life as a simple, troubled kid with ADHD, dyslexia and a rotten stepfather--and the beginning of another: his coming to terms with the unfolding reality that he’s the son of Poseidon.
Though the demons he battles will be both internal (searching for family, identity and meaning) and external (he is carrying a sword on the front cover), the connections he makes at Camp Half-Blood prepare him for the quest he’s about to pursue.
“Holes” by Louis Sachar
When Stanley Yelnats is given the option of jail or Camp Green Lake after being falsely convicted of a crime, he chooses the camp--which is no camp at all, but a juvenile detention facility.
Still, through the action of digging a five-by-five-by-five-foot hole every day with a ragtag bunch of misfits who become friends by virtue of their common lot, Stanley’s discovery of the real reason the warden has them digging holes leads into a mystery that changes his outlook and his character.
“There’s a Bat in Bunk Five” by Paula Danzinger
On the theme of the personal change that comes from the camp experience, Marcy is heading to camp for her first time, more concerned about herself: being away from her parents, being an introvert, being shy and insecure around new people in general and boys in particular.
Through a positive attitude and learning to listen to others, she realizes both that she’s really no different than anyone else, and that her life could be worse.
“Letters from Camp” by Kate Klise
Drawing from the traditional details of the horrible summer camp experience--mean counselors, bad food and an overall terrible experience written in letters that aren’t sent home to parents--this camp for siblings who can’t get along helps unite brothers and sisters and is entertainingly told through letters and an array of documents rather than straight prose.
“Wish You Weren’t Here” by Melissa J. Morgan
Camp Confidential book number eight (in the 20-book series), set at Camp Lakeview, finds Sarah happy upon returning to camp, a place she goes to escape the insanity of her life in the real world--until she realizes that Abby, a girl from home--is there.
If Abby shares what she knows about Sarah’s real life, Sarah might lose her closest camp friends.
Morgan’s series, each book with a new protagonist and plot line, brings to light the issues faced by a group of camp friends as they navigate the murky waters of growing up, growing apart and getting back together through the experience of summer camp.
Beth Morrow is a middle school reading teacher, author and senior week program director for the Central Ohio Diabetes Association’s Camp Hamwi. Drop her a note to let her know what you think of these camp-themed books at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment about your favorite young adult camp books.