Graphic Novels for Armchair Campers | Stellar Panels

These graphic novels—all featuring girls as the main characters—bring the camp experience to life, complete with campfires, cabins, and cliques. For kids stuck at home due to COVID-19, a good camping book is the next best thing to being there—maybe better, depending on how you feel about spiders.


There won’t be any summer camp this year for most kids, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but readers can live vicariously through graphic novels, letting the characters on the page hike the trails, drink the bug juice, and run in the three-legged race.

For comics creators, summer camp offers a lot of storytelling opportunities. The first-time camper gets to experience the social awkwardness of a new school together with the physical discomforts of living outdoors. Nobody explains the camp routines, spiders are everywhere, and the less said about outhouses, the better. Middle school may have mean girls, but it also has flush toilets.

The discomforts are minor, though, compared to what kids gain from going away to camp. Summer vacation is more than just time off; it’s an important time to pause and take stock. Kids may not think of it this way, but being away from classmates and friends offers an opportunity to look back, to reframe, and to gain new perspectives. Summer camp is an even bigger break, taking the campers away from their homes and into the woods, with new social situations to navigate and new skills to master.

For many children, summer camp is a first taste of independence. Not only are they away from home, but the adults at camp tend to stay in the background, and the counselors aren’t much older than they are. The campers have to figure everything out for themselves and are forced to go out of their comfort zones and draw on resources they may not know they have. In all these stories, the campers come away from camp very different from who they were when they arrived.

These graphic novels, all of which feature girls as the main characters, bring the camping experience to life, complete with campfires, cabins, and cliques. For kids who are stuck at home due to COVID-19, reading a good camping book is the next best thing to being there—and maybe better, depending on how you feel about spiders and outhouses.

 

As the Crow Flies, by Melanie Gillman (Iron Circus, 2017)

Gr 6 Up–Camp Three Peaks is a religious summer camp whose leader is a determined feminist; the weeklong camp centers on a 50-mile hike to the top of a mountain where, in the 19th century, the local women had a religious revelation. Charlie, who is Black and queer, immediately feels unsafe there, but she is determined to stick it out and mostly keeps her feelings to herself. As she moves through the landscape, she sees the blind spots of the leaders but also makes friends and engages with her own doubts. While this story offers a lot of food for thought, it’s also anticlimactic as the graphic novel ends before the girls reach their goal. The story continues as a webcomic on Gillman’s website.

Be Prepared, by Vera Brosgol (First Second, 2018)
Gr 4-9–Vera, a Russian immigrant, is both poorer than and culturally different from her classmates, and she can’t seem to fit in no matter how hard she tries. When she finds out that the Russian Orthodox church runs a sleepaway camp for first-generation Russian children, she persuades her mother to let her and her brother go. Camp gets off to a rough start: Vera doesn’t know the routines, the other kids are aloof, and she’s horrified by the outhouse. Everything she does ends up as a disaster until, thanks to an act of kindness, she finds a friend and a purpose. Brosgol is a gifted artist, and her story, which is part memoir and part fiction, is filled with expressive characters, cute animals, and self-deprecating humor.

Camp, by Kayla Miller (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2019)
Gr 3-7Camp is Miller’s follow-up to the hugely popular Click; the third graphic novel in the series, Act, came out in June. Camp manages to be both simple and subtle at the same time. The story is straightforward: Olive, the main character, and her friend Willow go to summer camp together, and friction occurs because Olive is making new friends while Willow only wants to hang out with Olive. This gets resolved with a bit of drama and some empathy and support from the counselors, but what really sets Miller’s storytelling apart—and makes this a true graphic novel—is the nonverbal communication. She often has wordless sequences that last for pages, and whether there is dialogue in the panel or not, Miller skillfully portrays the characters’ feelings through their facial expressions. Camp is also a good introduction to the culture of summer camp for younger readers, as this is one book where everything is explained and the counselors stay on top of things.

Camp Midnight, vol. 1, by Steven T. Seagle & Jason Adam Katzenstein (Image, 2016)
Camp Midnight, vol. 2: Camp Midnight vs. Camp Daybright, by Steven T. Seagle & Jason Adam Katzenstein (Image, 2019)
Gr 3-7–Skye, a strong-willed, sassy, almost-teenage girl, accidentally ends up at a camp full of literal monsters in the first volume of Camp Midnight. She not only has to conceal her lack of monster-ness, she also has to contend with the usual camp stuff, including mean girls, a strangely clingy friend, and a cute guy (who is actually a werewolf). It all works out in the end, and in the second volume, she is looking forward to returning but instead is sent to Camp Daylight, a boringly pleasant human camp. Rather than accept her situation, Skye tries to change it, but ultimately her loyalties are tested when the two camps, Midnight and Daylight, compete against each other in a sort of camp Oympics. Seagle is one of the creators of Ben 10 and other animated cartoons, and these two graphic novels have a cartoony, over-the-top feel to them, mixing sight gags and witty comebacks with serious themes including blended families, unequal friendships, and even death. Katzenstein’s lively art is a perfect match for Seagle’s storytelling. Both books are colorful, fast-paced, and laugh-out-loud funny, ideal for a stay-at-home summer afternoon.

Read: "Graphic Novels for Cat Lovers"

Dead Weight: Murder at Camp Bloom, by Terry Blas, Molly Muldoon, & Matthew Seely (Oni, 2018)
Gr 7 Up–This fun take on the mystery genre has a diverse cast, sharp humor, and a lot of heart. Jesse Delacruz is spending the summer at a weight loss camp because her parents are making her; she thinks she looks just fine and is more interested in fashion than fitness. When she sneaks out for a midnight nosh, though, she and another camper witness a murder, and they recruit a few friends to help them solve it. The cast is diverse in every way, including their body types and their motivations for being at the camp, and as a result, Dead Weight offers witty, insightful takes on body image, family life, and stereotypes.

Lumberjanes: Campfire Songs, by Shannon Watters et al. (BOOM! Box, May 2020)
Gr 4-7—You can’t write about camping comics without mentioning the Lumberjanes, whose endless summer at Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types has been going on since the first issue came out in 2014. This book is a collection of short stories that originally appeared in the comics: The Lumberjanes meet up with faeries, vegetal kittens, and other supernatural types as they plan events and earn new badges. The stories are by different creators and the art style and character designs vary a bit, but they all have the cartoony energy that has been a hallmark of the series since the beginning.

Lumberjanes: The Shape of Friendship, by Lilah Sturgis and polterink (BOOM! Box, 2019)
Gr 4-7–This is the second of three original graphic novels by Sturgis and the singly-named polterink, and like the first, Lumberjanes: The Infernal Compass, this book is drawn in a more naturalistic style that uses soft grays and a single color (pink in this case, green for the first book). In this story, the Lumberjanes encounter supernatural creatures, the Pookas, who are super-cute but mischievous shape-shifters. When the Pookas hear about the Lumberjanes’ awesome camp, they take the girls’ shapes, lock them up in their cave, and head off to take their places at camp. Their long-suffering counselor, Jen, is fooled at first but quickly realizes something is amiss when her charges start acting like perfect campers instead of going off on tangents and blowing things up. The final book by Sturgis and polterink, True Colors, will be out in October 2020.

 

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Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, editor of the “Good Comics for Kids” blog, writes “Stellar Panels” SLJ’s graphic novels column. 

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