Oh, right, summer camp is a thing… And the season is upon us! All of a sudden, school is out and young people are being shipped off to learn how to despise teamwork, or shoot arrows at hay bales, or bathe in bugspray to no avail. At least, that’s what I remember about my own experiences at Girl Scout camp so very long ago. I also remember the one hour of “me time” each afternoon, when we would hide in our mosquito netting and write letters to other friends at other camps, read, or nap. I always ran out of books halfway through the week and had to write my own stories for the remaining muggy, buggy days. There’s a strange joy in hiding in one’s sleeping bag – nearly suffocating – to read with a penlight after everyone’s supposed to be asleep.
These past few weeks I’ve had a parade of kids, teens, and parents coming to the bookshop to stock up for a week or month of summer adventures away from home. I guess quiet breaks are still part of daily life, and electronics aren’t encouraged at a lot of camps, so entertaining books are in high demand! Huzzah! Occasionally, I get asked for recommendations, either by kids who just don’t know what to read next or by parents who aren’t sure what would fit comfortably with their child’s interests. This is pretty much my favorite kind of question to get at work.
So, if you’re not sure what to pack for a few weeks away from home, I’ve got some suggestions. I always ask, “What’s the last book you/your kid really liked?” before I recommend something. (Tip to parents: talk to your damn kids! Find out what they’ve actually enjoyed reading! You might find that they’re not such mysterious creatures after all.) Over the next few days, I’m going to post some of my favorite books to add to kids’ overstuffed backpacks, based on the most popular requests.
If you liked… The Fault In Our Stars by John Greene
Ok, so this book is absurdly popular right now. I liked it very much when I read it a couple of years ago (though I like Green’s An Abundance of Katherines better, because it’s so freakin’ funny). But it’s a little weird that everyone is either heading straight for this book or looking for something just like it. I guess this means the movie was good? (I haven’t seen it yet but I should.) Or a lot of customers have heard all about it and just have to know what made their friends talk so passionately about fictional teenagers. When I’m asked for a book similar to The Fault In Our Stars I try not to limit my suggestion to only more John Green books. People can work that out on their own. My current favorite book of a similar theme and genre is Cammie McGovern’s book Say What You Will.
It’s another realistic YA novel with an actual believable romance between characters dealing with real-life stuff beyond the average high school drama. In his senior year, Matthew gets a job helping out a girl in his grade with cerebral palsy. It’s a big deal for him to do something like that, since his unrecognized OCD symptoms make certain parts of daily life really difficult. But Amy liked the fact that he wasn’t so falsely up-beat around her as most everyone else, and asked him to give it a try.
As for Amy, she wants to have a year of school without an adult aide following her around everywhere. Matthew was right: it keeps her from making real friends. Amy needs help with her mobility and uses a computer to communicate, but she’s smart and funny and tired of being “an inspiration” to people who don’t really know her. With Matthew and her other new helpers, Amy hopes to make actual friends who could get to know the real her. High school social life isn’t so straightforward as Amy imagined, though, and the characters she meets through Matthew and the others are all going through their own difficulties, some more nicely than others. Amy’s knack for understanding other people makes her want to help Matthew work through his mental illness and confront the parts of himself he tries to silence. As they reveal more of their true selves to one another, Amy and Matthew run the risk of falling too hard and shattering the most important friendship in their lives.
I like Say What You Will for several reasons. First of all, disabled characters as actual characters! And not only does Amy have a vivid personality, she expressly reacts against peoples’ pity and falseness around her when they don’t know how to behave through their discomfort. Reading her thoughts makes it clear that patience and effort are the most important thing when trying to relate to people – not false cheeriness. The interactions between Amy (whose disability is immediately apparent), and Matthew (who tries to hide his inner turmoil) are honest; with all the hidden angst and sharp humor you would expect between two smart teenagers.
In fact, pretty much everyone seems real and human. There are no real villains in this book, just people who make the wrong choices, or (even worse) people who are doing things for all the wrong reasons. Teenage characters totally steal the show, like they do in John Green’s books, but the grown-ups have their own moments and mistakes here, too. It’s a great illustration of how everyone’s just trying to get by the best they can, and how important it is to tell people that they’re important to you.
But it’s not just an introspective character study: there’s drama and miscommunication, prom disasters, smuggled booze, cinema hide-outs, and embarrassing technological malfunctions. A great deal of Amy and Matthew’s communication exists through e-mail and text, since they’re often separated and talking doesn’t always come easy to the couple. Near the end of the book, one crisis after another makes it seem like everything might fall apart. But, unlike in everyone’s favorite Tragedy Of The Summer up there (even though The Fault In Our Stars actually came out in 2012), the stars are a little kinder to our sweet couple in Cammie McGovern’s book.
Teens who liked the complex teenagers making their own damn [hard] decisions in TFIOS will probably appreciate the imperfect but thoughtful characters in Say What You Will. Those of you who want to read more about young people struggling through difficult experiences – doing so without the author throwing them a pity-party – will find a careful and heartfelt depiction of what it’s like to live with extra obstacles in every single day. Say What You Will takes place over a year and then some, so it’s not technically a summer book. But it would make a great camp read because the characters are addicting – readers will want to hang out with them some more and find out what they do next – but the story is realistic and touching and fun.
No unexpected horrors lie within these pages, so you won’t be hearing scary noises outside your cabin at night unless there really is something out there. (Sorry, campers. Noises are part of the fun, but your books don’t have to make it worse.) And the summer scenes are pretty wonderful: lots of sneaking around behind meddlesome parents’ backs. So, you know, real stuff. Just written into a touching, funny, strong story. Pack a second book if you’re heading away for a week or more, though, because Say What You Will is a fast read which will be over too soon once you become a part of Amy and Matthew’s friendship.