When author-illustrator Vera Brosgol thinks back on the summer camp of her youth, it’s not new friends and fun activities, or even bug bites, bad food, or uncomfortable bunks that first come to mind. Nope. She clearly recalls the sheer misery of a summer spent at age nine at a Russian Orthodox camp in the wilds of Connecticut with no indoor plumbing to be found. Her experience there is at the heart of her latest graphic novel—and her first one for middle graders, Be Prepared (First Second), which has been selling at a good clip since its release on April 24.
“It’s a fictionalized memoir of—I don’t want to say the worst summer of my life, but it’s definitely up there,” Brosgol said, describing her new release. The idea for the book, she noted, came from her talking about this camp all the time. “Anytime summer camp would come up in conversation, I would mention this camp and just horrify people, mainly with the outhouse,” she added. “It always got a reaction. So it kind of felt like fertile ground for a story. It makes me laugh now. At the time it wasn’t very funny.”
In the book, nine-year-old Vera is desperate to go to summer camp like all her wealthier classmates, longing for color wars, canoeing, crafts, marshmallow roasting, and all the “amazing” stuff that she has heard about. When she learns of an affordable Russian camp through her family’s church, she begs her mother to sign her up. But it’s nothing like she imagined it would be.
“I was a shy kid. I was not an outdoorsy kid,” she recalled. “I was an indoor-art kid and this was not that kind of camp, unfortunately. I think I might have had a great time at an art camp. This was a traditional scouting camp with a focus on Russian history and religion, which is exactly as fun as it sounds. And I had a horrible time.”
Be Prepared chronicles young Vera’s rough stay at camp, including living with no running water, a smelly outhouse, and her older mean-girl cabin mates. The book even contains copies of real—hilarious in hindsight—letters from that camp sent by Vera and her brother to their mother, pleading with her to pick them up as soon as possible. “This is a book for kids who did not enjoy summer camp or do not enjoy summer camp,” she explained. “And maybe for the kids who do, too, to give them some perspective.”
But lest readers be wary of too dark an outing, there are humorous moments throughout and things do end on a hopeful note, with Vera triumphing in a camp activity, and ultimately connecting with a kindred art-loving spirit just before it’s time to pack up and go home.
Be Prepared is Brosgol’s third book, following her critically acclaimed YA graphic novel Anya’s Ghost (First Second, 2011) and picture book Leave Me Alone! (Roaring Brook, 2016), which received a Caldecott Honor. She came to children’s books by way of animation, which she studied for three years at Sheridan College before landing a job at Laika, the studio behind such animated films as Coraline and ParaNorman. Brosgol stayed at Laika for 10 years, and completed work on Anya’s Ghost in her off hours. She now writes for a living. “It took a long time until I felt ready to do books full-time,” she explains. “But having that positive feedback on the first book made it seem more doable. I kind of slowly worked until I could jettison the day job. It’s really dreamy.”
Brosgol’s passion for creating comics and stories had blossomed long before that; she created a webcomic called Return to Sender while still in high school. She and her community of comics friends from high school eventually traveled to San Diego Comic-Con where Brosgol met Kazu Kibuishi, who happened to be putting together his first Flight anthology volume (Image Comics, 2004), for which Brosgol contributed a short story and comic illustrations. From there, things pretty much, well, took flight. Literary agent Judy Hansen, who represented Flight, had agreed to represent Brosgol for her full-length graphic novel idea (Anya’s Ghost), and sold it to Mark Siegel, editorial director at First Second.
“Vera was one of the first people I reached out to when First Second began [in 2006]—after seeing her work online and in the now legendary Flight anthology,” Siegel recalled. “Our first project together was Anya’s Ghost, which quickly became one of our most beloved titles.”
For Be Prepared, Siegel said that the approach to the work was a little different. “We made use of an experimental critique method we call ‘the Story Trust,’ he said, “a kind of graphic novel writing group, in this case composed of Gene Yang, Sam Bosma, Shelli Paroline, Braden Lamb, Vera, and me. It’s a very interesting thing we’ve tested out a few times—a diagnostic tool for storytellers.” Brosgol gives a shout-out to the whole crew in a “notes of thanks” section in the book.
Siegel believes that there are a number of strong factors at play in Be Prepared that make it appealing to young readers. “Her artwork is uniquely expressive and accessible, including for non-comics readers,” he said, “and her characters have a charisma that is all her own. You could call it her acting. A good cartoonist is really an orchestra of many talents. But then, why is it that Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters have connected? Why does Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s Real Friends connect? I think in large part, Be Prepared resonates in a similar way—because it’s emotionally true.”
Macmillan supported Be Prepared with a national print media campaign, a major advance copy distribution, book festival and comic-con appearances, a digital marketing and social media campaign, and promotions and events on Free Comic Book Day (May 5). One of Brosgol’s favorite giveaways was a set of merit badge patches for such achievements as “Pooped in the Woods,” and “Made One Friend.” In addition, said Brosgol, “I got my first book tour for this book, which was really exciting.” She and fellow First Second graphic novelist Hope Larson (All Summer Long) did a seven-city national tour of middle schools. “We traveled all over the country visiting them and it was a blast,” she said.
More recently Brosgol appeared at Children’s Institute and ALA in New Orleans. “I got to talk to independent booksellers and librarians who’d been handing this book to kids or seeing how it performed on the hold shelf or in the store, and their reaction was so great to hear,” she said. “The fact that it was finding its audience with their help and also just through word-of-mouth among kids—it makes me cry; it makes me really, really happy.”
Readers and booksellers appear to be happy as well. Jennifer Green, owner of Green Bean Books in Portland, Ore. (Brosgol’s local children’s indie), has accompanied Brosgol on area school visits and held a launch party for Be Prepared on April 24. “It was super fun,” she said. “We had a campout theme with a fake campfire and Vera gave out camping patches, and we had s’more-like snacks.”
To date, Green Bean has sold 161 copies of the book. “That’s a lot for us,” Green said. “We’re really tiny, 550 square feet. We have to restock every week because we get so many requests.” While Brosgol admittedly has a fan base in her hometown, Green believes there are other qualities that make Be Prepared a popular choice for readers. “I think it resonates with a lot of kids because it’s the camp theme, which is perfect for summer,” she says. “But also, it’s navigating that world when you’re at that age of kind of wanting to grow up but not really wanting to grow up, and trying to be like the older girls, but can’t really be yet. And Vera’s got three different cultures she’s trying to figure out—which one she fits into. I think a lot of kids empathize and identify with this really sympathetic character.”
Green believes that support for Brosgol in the community is strong in part because “she gives back a lot too” and is generous with her time. “Many of the schools we visited with her are not the highest income schools in Portland,” says Green. “She always wants to go to schools in the neighborhood where she lives—where kids don’t always get authors.”
Looking ahead, Brosgol has already completed her next picture book, called The Little Guys, about a bunch of forest gnomes, scheduled for release in April 2019 from Roaring Brook. And she is working on a new graphic novel for First Second, tentatively titled Pudding Jane and the Mermaid, which she says is “more of a middle-grade adventure fantasy.” After that, another Roaring Brook picture book is on the docket. “It’s hard to work when the weather’s really good, but I’m trying,” she said of tackling her very full plate this summer. But the positive feedback she’s been getting from Be Prepared is one of the things that will likely help fuel her creative drive.
“I was such a lonely kid,” she said. “If you read Be Prepared, it’s clear I was a lonely kid. I had a hard time making friends, so books were super important to me. The thought of making a book that might be important to a kid who’s the kind of kid I was is really special.”