Working in a bookstore has afforded me certain privileges. From having a plethora of reference material at my fingertips to all the discounted coffee I could ever want. However, nothing compares to the ability to nab an Advanced Readers Copy of a book, at times months, ahead of its public release. When I see a book I want among the stack I’m often quick to snatch it up so I can read it and excitedly discuss it with customers when it’s eventually released. This time I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of Be Prepared by the Harvey, Cybils, AND Eisner winning writer Vera Brosgol.
Some may recognize Brosgol’s name from her previous graphic novel: ‘Anya’s Ghost’, for which she won the aforementioned awards. Brosgol has also authored a children’s picture book entitled ‘Leave me Alone!’ but most should recognize her as a storyboard artist for Laika, the animation studio that produced ‘Coraline’ and ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ both films Brosgol worked on.
Brosgol has a history of working on stories that feature child protagonists in coming-of-age stories and Be Prepared is no different. The one exception is that Brosgol herself is the star. Be Prepared is a (mostly) true autobiographical account of Brosgol’s own time at summer camp and learning that the best way to fit in isn’t to blend in, but to simply be yourself.
The story starts with Vera, aged 9, attending a friend’s birthday party and meticulously memorizing the formula to throw the best birthday party ever: carvel ice cream cake, Pizza Hut pizza with stuffed crust (a MUST), gift bags and a sleepover. When it comes time for the birthday girl to open her gifts everyone provides lavish accessories for a fancy doll while Vera gives her a, quickly cast aside, hand-drawn portrait of the birthday girl and herself. When next comes time to play with all of their dolls, Vera claims that she “left” hers at home and the night ends with Vera on the outside of the sleeping bag circle as everyone else excitedly discusses what summer camp they’ll be attending.
We fast forward a few months to when Vera hosts her own sleepover but the results are very different, as is the formula. Instead of Pizza Hut, it’s Dimitri’s. Instead of Carvel, it’s a local bakery that gives the Brosgol’s a free cake and birthday well wishes. When it comes time to swap stories at night, none of the other girls are in the mood for talking and before morning can come, the girls’ mothers pick them up under the cover of night.
Even at nine Vera understood not only why her party failed, but also why she often feels ostracized by her peers. While her friends come from wealthier backgrounds where their parents were together and their fathers had lucrative government jobs, Vera was the daughter of a divorced mother who was working hard to provide for her Vera and two other children while putting herself through school. Vera comes to think that the reason why she’ll never be able fit in with American kids is simply that she’s “too poor. Too Russian. Too different.” So, when the opportunity to go to ORRA (Organization of Russian Razvedchiki in America), a summer camp for Russian-American youths presents itself, it’s no surprise that Vera jumps at the chance. Attending ORRA would give her the chance to socialize with other Russian-American children her age, make memories that she could take with her for the rest of her life and make some real friends along the way…If only things were that easy.
With her birthday on the horizon Vera is placed among the older campers, bunking with the fourteen-year-old Sashas (unrelated): best friends who are boy crazy for Alexei, the total douche ‘hunk’ of the camp, and who don’t give Vera the warmest of welcomes. But it doesn’t stop there. With most campers either having attended ORRA previously or came to camp with pre-existing friendships, Vera finds that even in a place where she should fit right in she still sticks out like a sore thumb.
Eventually Vera is able to break through to the Sasha’s by showing off her skills as an artist and they’re quick to warm up to the younger addition to their group so long as Vera, who is desperate to fit in by this point, appeases them with favors. However, Vera quickly finds that bought friends are quick to turn cold as she is cast out of their circle of friends faster than she was brought in. Once again, Vera finds herself on the outside looking in.
After a big hike and feeling rejuvenated, Vera sets out to conquer the placement test that awaits her at the end of camp. With that badge Vera would be able to prove that she’d beaten camp ORRA, that she’d won and that she didn’t need anyone like the Sashas or the overly friendly camp counselor.…but wasn’t that the point?
At a very young age Vera learns a lesson most won’t learn until their mid-twenties or later: that you don’t need the approval of others to enjoy yourself. With that knowledge, Vera is finally able to enjoy camp ORRA and make the memories she wanted all along. Vera spends the last few days of camp making friends, finding lost guinea pigs, basking in the wilderness and finally sticking it to Alexei.
From beginning to end Be Prepared is a story about finding yourself and finding where exactly you fit in in the universe. Now in my mid-twenties, stories like my previously reviewed Lucky Penny by Yuko Ota and Ananth Hirsh, and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds or Lost at Sea are the kind that stick with me as each delivers a powerful message about genuine struggles people face day to day and Be Prepared hits the same mark. To say that I was unprepared for the adventure that Be Prepared would take me on when I grabbed it off of the breakroom table would be an understatement. Brosgol, again, delivers a moving story about being true to yourself and appreciating those who genuinely support you. The fact that it’s an autobiographical account only serves to make the narrative stronger. As someone who grew up with a similar familial situation during a time when being a nerd wasn’t as cool this story often hits a little too close to home. Vera’s desire to share in he same experiences, create similar memories, and overall want to feel ‘normal’ are all things that I experienced at various points in my life and I’m sure that the sensation in’t a stranger to others. Graphic novels have the ability to capture raw human emotion in panels and Brosgol has mastered that art. Brosgol’s account of her time at ORRA is moving homage to those of us who find themselves unable to fit in.
When Be Prepared hits the shelves in late April, I urge you to pick up a copy for yourself. Even if the deeper message doesn’t resonate with you, you’ll still walk away with a wacky story about Brosgol’s time at camp. If you’re one of the ones who still hasn’t found your path, that’s okay, we’ve all been known to get a little lost trying to find our way. Just be careful of moose and properly treat animal bites.