It seems when the last bell on the final day of school has barely stopped ringing, plans for those lazy days of summer are set into motion. One item on the possible agenda, tending to send shivers down the spines of many children, is summer sleepover camp. While my memories of camping with members in my Girl Scout troop are full of good times and laughter (the baked bean fight in particular), those of spending time with complete strangers in an unfamiliar setting are not quite so favorable.
This all began one day
when Grandma Sadie called me up on the phone.
"I have a wonderful surprise!"
the best possible surprise popped into my mind.
What sprung into Eleanor's head was not what came out of Grandma Sadie's mouth. Eleanor has been yearning for a dog. Grandma Sadie wants to pay for her to go to the same sleepover camp Eleanor's mother attended when she was a young girl, Camp Wallumwahpuck. Initially Eleanor is truly excited; her friend loved camp the previous summer.
On the day before she is to leave, when she and her Mom are packing up her things to take for the week, the first hint of misgivings settles into her thinking. On seeing the bus to camp in the parking lot the next day, her sense of foreboding kicks into high gear. Her first walk through the gnat-infested woods on the way to her cabin, Gypsy Moth, skinning herself up pretty good after tripping on an exposed tree root, does nothing to dispel her fears.
Forced to eat nothing but lettuce, eventually with tomatoes and croutons and two rolls, only two rolls, for her meals (who would want to eat tuna drowning in mayonnaise, lasagna with spinach or drink fruit punch called bug juice?), Eleanor feels her anxiety growing. To make matters worse she is placed in the swim class one level above beginners and has to wear a jumbo life jacket to jump on the water trampoline. Her mattress on the top bunk is lumpy, her sleeping bag is too thin and what's that scratching on the window pane? Oh woe, Eleanor wants to go...go home...now.
An unexpected arrival in the barn, a note on the Wall of Feelings, and stomping and soaring astonish Eleanor. She's amazed to discover a shift in her thoughts about summer sleepover camp. She can leave if she wants to, but will she?
Julie Sternberg has the gift of being able to put pen to paper depicting the essence of being nine years old; it's as if she's gone back in time gathering in the thoughts and words of this age group. Surely she has had her own camp experiences to convey with such vividness the scenery, the cabins, the food, the swimming lessons, the late night walks to the bathroom, the counselors and the other campers with such descriptive clarity. In Sternberg's use of succinct sentences and chapters, readers are transported into the realm of Camp Wallumwahpuck; mosquitoes and all. Here are a couple of passages.
The screen door creaked when we opened it
and banged behind us when we got inside.
"Home sweet home!" Hope said.
It didn't look like home.
No rugs, no curtains, no lamps.
No couches, no armchairs, no tables.
No television, no stereo, no computer.
No colors on the walls.
Just brown wood, from floor to ceiling.
And four bunk beds, one in each corner.
And a few shelves and cubbies along the walls
under the windows.
"Candy-free?" I said.
I couldn't believe
I wasn't going to get
a single M&M.
My friend Katie's camp had given her millions!
"So what's for snack?" I asked.
"Frozen fruit bars," she said.
"And gluten-free cookies."
I dropped my fork on my plate.
This was even worse than my flying fall.
I've got to get out of here, I thought.
I really do.
What really brings this delightful story sharply into focus are the illustrations of Matthew Cordell. His attention to detail, knowing what to emphasize on a given page and portrayal of the characters' emotions, especially Eleanor, are adept, full of life and the right amount of humor. He is the king of capturing the mood of the moment.
His illustrations which cross the gutter spanning nearly or all of two pages draw readers into the heart of the narrative; Eleanor and her parents loading her trunk on the bus, Eleanor standing forlornly in her cabin for the first time, or a series of tetherball games. When concentrating on a few precious minutes his perspective alters zooming in on an object or faces; the bug flying around the fruit punch, Eleanor struggling in the lake for the first time or Joplin running like the wind to get to dinner on time. Cordell's every line pulses with energy.
Like Bug Juice on a Burger written by Julie Sternberg with illustrations by Matthew Cordell is the joy and agony of a single week at summer camp rolled into 166 pages of pure reading pleasure. I can't think of a better book for reading in June, July or August...or anytime you want to be nine years old again. I love reading about Eleanor, her parents, family and friends; it's a heartwarming journey.
Please follow the links embedded in the author and illustrator names above to access their websites. Here is a link to the Bug Juice Activity Kit. Links to other camp books I've reviewed are here (Postcards from Camp: A Postal Story) and here (Mosquitoes are Ruining My Summer! And Other Silly Dilly Camp Songs). And I can't think of summer camp without thinking of the song in the video below. Enjoy.