Let it be known that I never went to summer camp as a kid. Family historians disagree over the root cause of this. I am under the impression that it was never an option. My parents, on the other hand, remember me vociferously protesting any form of outdoorsy socialness of this sort. Regardless of the reasons, I have almost no associations with this common rite of childhood. No particular affection for bunking or lanyards or any of that stuff. So my experience with Chiggers, a camp-based graphic novel by Hope Larson, is certainly not tainted by any lingering nostalgia on my part. When I tell you that I am a huge fan of this book, I hope you’ll understand that I’m basing it entirely on Larson’s skill as a writer and artist. Chiggers, in spite of its itchy scratchy bug-ridden name, is a deft take on the reality behind the friendships made, lost, and made again at an average summer camp. The backstabbing, heartfelt talks, crushes, and quiet moments are displayed here with an honesty that manages to be real without tripping into candy-colored memory. An honest and obviously personal title.
Abby was so sure that coming back to camp would be awesome this year, but things have kind of gotten off to a rocky start. I mean it’s great that her friend Rose is a cabin assistant, but that just means she’s not around a lot. And Beth and Zoe are great but they’re sort of acting too cool for Abby, like they’ve grown up more or something. When Abby’s annoying bunkmate goes home due to an attack of severe chiggers she’s replaced with Shasta, a girl who claims to have been hit by lightning. Shasta annoys everyone except for Abby who finds her interesting. So between navigating between friends and getting a crush on a really lovely dweeb, Abby’s off to figure out how to survive the summer and have a good time too.
The book decides to leap into the action mid-stream, in a sense, letting the reader catch up as they go. When I first started reading I wondered if this was the second book in a series and that I’d somehow missed the little "Vol. 2" symbol on the spine. But no. As it happens you sort of plunge right into the fact that Abby has been going to this camp for some time and has friends from previous years, both older than her and her age. It wouldn’t make a lick of sense for a girl in middle school to go to camp and find that she didn’t know anybody (unless it was her first time there). Point Larson.
The next question was time period. I guess Larson probably had to decide right off the bat whether or not she wanted to make this book a work of historical fiction from her own youth or something a little more contemporary. I suppose she could have placed it in some timeless era where technology isn’t a factor, which I’m usually a fan of. But for some reason, it seemed important that Larson make the story contemporary. I loved that the kids in the book couldn’t bring electronics like iPods to camp. It just sort of makes it feel a little more real (and managed to explain the lack of communication devices present).
In terms of the storylines, there was an authenticity to this book that I could appreciate (so maybe my earlier "I’m not tainted by lingering nostalgia" line was a bit premature). I mean, the story here is incredibly realistic. A girl befriends someone that everyone else can’t stand and finds herself torn between friends. That’s a situation a lot of kids can identify with (and adults too, for that matter). I also loved that talking about someone behind their back didn’t automatically mean that person wasn’t your friend. It was just a part of growing up. There are no real "villains" here just as there aren’t real villains in your day-to-day life. There’s just a lot of people trying to interact, drawing conclusions, and having to befriend one another in spite of the odds.
As for the art itself, Larson’s style is a dark lined clear cut take with plenty of shifts in perspective and angles to keep a reader interested. Even more than this, I’ve always loved how she captures little human moments that you wouldn’t necessarily catch elsewhere. When Beth is telling Abby about the awesome band she’s going to be in she asks, "What do you play again?" Abby, who’s leaning on the top bunk with her chin on her hand smiles to the side, head forward, as she answers, "Harp". Beth playfully calls her a loser and cuffs her but the moment would probably play as dark if it weren’t for Larson’s eye for visual levity. It’s enormously hard to make a series of lines and curves not only look human but also exhibit the everyday tendencies that make us who we are. But if you want an example of how it’s done, Chiggers would be a great place to look. Admittedly, in this black and white format some of her characters look similar. I’d just ask that in the future publishers allow her full-color reprints instead. Kids like hues.
Children’s literature has never quite plumbed the summer camp genre for all it’s worth. The Percy Jackson books probably take the idea to its logical extreme, but when I try to think of realistic fiction the only title that pops into my brain is Yours Till Niagara Falls, Abby by Jane O’Connor. I know that there are others, but they haven’t really become standard bearers. So in a way, Hope Larson is working in fairly fresh territory. I was a fan of her, Gray Horses a number of years ago and always felt it a pity that she mostly did graphic novels for teens and not kids. Now she’s tilted her focus a little younger and created a book that’s just the right mix of real and mildly fantastical. A great new book from a comic artist.
Other Blog Reviews: the excelsior file, Comics Worth Reading, Dick Hyacinth’s One-Stop Hyphen Shop, Read About Comics, Geeks of Doom, Comicsgirl, Comics in the Classroom, Under the Covers, In the Tower, Be like the squirrel, girl (great blog name), Bookworm Readers, and The Thinking Mother.
If you go to Larson’s Chiggers website be sure to check out the Fan Art portion. Great stuff.
Read a large segement of the book on New York Magazine’s Vulture blog.
A very cute article on her in the Mountain Xpress paper.
She was part of the Simon Pulse Blogfest a couple months ago.
You can watch a video of her here.
You can hear her comments on trying to get the book optioned here.
Just as an unrelated note, when I was trying to find the copyright information for Chiggers I noticed that my search also yielded this puppy:
The kicker is that it’s a board book. The mind reels.