With social distancing still a priority in preventing further spread of COVID-19, it seems unlikely that many traditional summer camps will be going ahead in 2020. While reading will never be a substitute for the real thing, we’ve collected together a roundup of books, series, and graphic novels set at camp in the hopes that living vicariously through these characters will at least help a little with the disappointment of missing out this year.
Lumberjanes Series, Created by Noelle Stevenson
Where better to start than with the ultimate summer camp series? Lumberjanes began as a comic series in 2014 and has now produced over 70 individual issues, multiple hard and softcover collected volumes, plus graphic novels and a middle-grade prose series.
The series follows the five Lumberjane Scouts of Roanoke Cabin—April, Jo, Ripley, Mal, and Molly—who spend their summers at Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. The girls find themselves caught up in all manner of crazy, slightly supernatural experiences like finding herds of unicorns, helping the ghosts of former campers, and making friends with mermaids. Every issue and book is filled with fun, friendship, and plenty of thoughtful moments.
The Lumberjanes series is also known for its diversity with non-binary, transgender, and other LGBTQ characters, plus one main character with LGBTQ parents. There are also characters of many different races as you can see from a quick glance at the covers. The amount of representation means that most readers will be able to find at least one character they really identify with.
You can read my full review of the Lumberjanes novel series here on GeekMom. Otherwise dive straight in with volume one of the series: Beware the Kitten Holy or pick up the latest graphic novel release, the appropriately titled Campfire Songs.
Camp Murderface by Josh Berk and Saundra Mitchell
Camp Murderface is a middle-grade horror novel in the style of Goosebumps. Set at Camp Sweetwater in the summer of 1983, it is told from the perspectives of Tez and Corryn, two racially diverse young campers who soon discover that this camp has far worse horrors to share than just the moody British teens who work as its counselors.
By the end of their first day, Corryn has already witnessed an immense horde of bugs sweep through her cabin and the pair of them have seen screaming faces in the bonfire after a strange stick was thrown into the flames. Soon they realize that the adults at camp all seem to be affected by what is going on, and it’s down to them to solve this mystery. Dodging murderous spirits, grumpy counselors, and the old and creepy lifeguard, the two kids learn that Camp Sweetwater has a deadly history that stretches all the way back to the 1800s, but can they uncover the secrets before they become the next victims?
This was a fun story that will probably make you grateful that you’re not headed to camp this year, or certainly not to one like this! The scares here are tame from an adult perspective but will no doubt have younger readers on the edge of their seats as Tez and Corryn are nearly drowned by a towel or strangled by a shower curtain like a middle-grade version of Final Destination. I only wish a bit more depth was given to the overall mystery because, by the end, I still wasn’t entirely sure what had gone on. Given that this is the first part of a duology, I’m hopeful that those answers will be found in book two, but this one simply ended suddenly with no real conclusions or answers.
Camp Murderface certainly isn’t the best middle-grade horror I’ve ever read but will make a fun read for kids who want something summery yet spooky to read under the covers at night.
Camp by L.C. Rosen
Featured in a full review last week as part of our Pride Month series, Camp by L.C. Rosen is a sex-positive YA novel set at a summer camp exclusively for LGBTQ youth. Randy is returning to camp for his fifth summer, but this time he has arrived with a plan. He’s arrived with newly shortened hair, a masculine wardrobe, and a new name—Del. Gone are his makeup, glittery clothes, and femme behaviors. Why? This time he is determined to win the heart of Hudson, the tough, macho heartthrob of the camp who only looks twice at masculine guys.
This book will be an ideal summer read for LGBTQ teens. It presents a dream summer camp for LGBTQ youth, as one of the staff in the book says, “it’s a safe place. A place for you all to be yourselves and have a childhood that you don’t get anywhere else.” The camp in the story has an incredibly diverse group of kids in attendance, not just those who identify as gay or lesbian but also kids who are bi, transgender, asexual, and non-binary, and all of them get to be themselves for these few weeks at camp. As with the other books on this list so far, there are also racially diverse characters to be found here.
I found Camp to be one of the most thought-provoking books I have read this year. While I would shy away from recommending it to most younger readers, its advice on queer sex could well be invaluable to older teens who are beginning to explore that aspect of their sexuality.
Camp Spirit by Axelle Lenoir
Set in 1994, Camp Spirit follows grunge-loving seventeen-year-old Elodie who has been forced to work as a camp counselor by her mother before she heads off to college in the fall. Elodie is not an outdoorsy type person at all, preferring to listen to Nirvana and Soundgarden on her walkman than sit around a campfire. She’s also been put in charge of a notorious bunch of redhead girls who seem determined to turn their summer camp experience into Lord of the Flies by any means necessary.
Despite her initial troubles, Elodie finds herself making a connection to fellow counselor Catherine who has helped her overcome her fear of using the shared bathrooms, and she surprises the other counselors by forging a strong bond with her campers. However, something is still not right at Camp Bear Lake. The Chief constantly gives her the creeps, the camp’s theme song is oddly Satanic, and a mysterious blue light glows in the forest at night. Some of the things she’s seen bear an uncanny resemblance to the legend of Bear Lake that was told on the first night of camp, and Elodie cannot help but dig deeper, but she soon finds herself caught up in something stranger than she imagined.
I devoured Camp Spirit in just two sittings, I simply didn’t want to put it down. This graphic novel perfectly blends summer camp shenanigans, a paranormal backdrop that begs to be investigated, an element of traditional native Canadian lore, and a subtle LGBTQ romance. Throw in the musical references to Kurt Cobain and other grunge legends, and you have something that sits so perfectly in my wheelhouse that it may just have been written specifically for me.
The redhead kids in Elodie’s group were an absolute delight, throwing out inappropriate questions without warning, just as kids do, and keeping what could have been a very dark story far more light-hearted and funny. Incidentally, the language can get a little risque and there are some shower scenes but they do keep things PG thanks to well-placed hair and steam clouds. This is very much a YA level graphic novel though thanks to some scenes that lean toward more gore and horror than you’d expect from middle grade. The other counselors and kids were rather two-dimensional, although counselor Magalie—the only named POC in the story—was a slight exception.
Camp Spirit was written by trans comic author Axelle Lenoir and I’m already excited to pick up her next book—What If We Were…—later this year. I do hope we get to return to Camp Bear Lake again one day, even if it does mean getting to see the Chief (who bears an uncanny resemblance to my dad) posing in booty shorts again!
MonsterStreet 4: Camp of No Return by J. H. Reynolds
Sticking with the weirder side of summer camp, Camp of No Return is another middle-grade horror offering in the same vein as Goosebumps. The book is part of the MonsterStreet series, but as these are all standalone titles, you don’t need to worry about jumping straight into book four of the series.
At just 128 pages, Camp of No Return starts out at a breakneck pace and never lets up in order to cram a surprisingly detailed plot filled with twists and turns into its short length. Every year, a lottery is held to allocate places at Camp Moon Lake, the most incredible summer camp of them all. No one knows what actually happens at the camp because former campers are sworn to total secrecy—not even allowed to discuss it with their parents—but everyone knows that only a fool would turn down a place. This year, Harper is one of the lucky ones, but on the bus to the camp another camper named Brodie tells her that several years earlier, the camp was the scene of a mass murder, immediately setting her on edge. Worse, she realizes that she has never actually known anybody who has attended the camp and come back.
Upon arrival, the campers are wowed by the camp’s amenities: a go-kart track, rollercoaster, full water park, outdoor cinema, and stables with exotic animals like giraffes and zebras are among the first things Harper sees. The only downside is a strange fog that hangs over everything, giving the whole place a disturbing atmosphere. Harper tries to ignore her fears and enjoy camp, but it isn’t long before the first camper disappears. The staff insists the girl simply went home ill, but Harper isn’t convinced and as the weird events continue to mount up, she discovers that nothing at Camp Moon Lake is as it seems and nobody is who they appear to be either.
This was an entertaining, if ridiculous, story that I’m sure kids will love. There are so many twists that you’ll probably want to re-read it immediately afterward to try and spot all the hidden hints and secrets scattered throughout. Harper goes through a wide range of theories as her time at the camp progresses, but none of them end up being quite as crazy as the truth. Every chapter ends on a note that should be followed by a dramatic “DUN DUN DUUUUN!” playing in your head and makes you want to carry on to the next one to find out what happens next.
Adults will probably find this one a touch ludicrous, but we are far from the target audience, and I can see Camp of No Return being devoured by torchlight under the covers or making a perfect story to tell around a campfire late at night. Look out for a review of the rest of the MonsterStreet series later this year.
Stand Up, Yumi Chung by Jessica Kim
My final book in this roundup, Stand Up, Yumi Chung by Jessica Kim, is a very different one and is set at a city-based day camp, rather than a traditional sleepaway camp in the woods. Yumi is a middle-grader at the illustrious Winston Preparatory Academy. The daughter of Korean immigrants who appear to only be concerned about academics, she feels under constant pressure to perform at the highest level and live up to their expectations—expectations sent into the stratosphere thanks to her older sister Yuri, who graduated at fifteen and now attends the UCLA medical school where she is studying to become a doctor.
Yumi, however, has very different dreams. She aspires to be a stand-up comedian like her hero, the YouTube star Jasmine Jasper. Yumi’s summer, however, has just been left in tatters. Her parents have revealed that their Korean barbecue restaurant is struggling and they can no longer afford the fees for her school. Instead of allowing her to switch schools to somewhere more her pace, however, they are forcing her to attend Koreatown’s most rigorous hagwon, a daily study school that will allow her to score at least 98% on the SSAT and receive a full scholarship. After her first day at the hagwon, Yumi is headed to the library to continue studying when she spots something incredible. A new comedy club has opened up across the road and Jasmine Jasper is performing there. Taking a sneaky look around, a series of misunderstandings result in Yumi attending a session of Jasmine’s summer camp for aspiring young comedians under someone else’s identity.
As summer rolls on, Yumi’s life becomes ever more tangled as she tries to support her family’s failing business and her sister’s personal crisis, while balancing hagwon study and her new secret identity. Performing at the summer camp is the only thing bringing her any happiness, but she knows her parents will never allow her to actually attend the thoroughly non-academic camp and she lives in fear of her true identity being revealed. If only there was a way to solve all her problems at once.
Stand Up, Yumi Chung was a great book that gave me insight into a different culture thanks to its Own Voices author. Throughout the book, we see things from Yumi’s perspective as she rails at her parents and how unfair the pressure they heap upon her and her sister feels. However, as the story progresses, Yumi begins to understand a little more about why they act the way they do and realizes that they actually care about her far more than she thought. The story would be wonderful for parents and kids to read together, as I hope it would encourage kids to understand why their parents might push them to do things they hate but also help parents see why they should support their children’s passions no matter how frivolous they may seem on the surface.
Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol (included by GeekDad Jonathan)
Vera Brosgol moved to the United States from Russia when she was five, and growing up she had a hard time fitting in with her American friends: she didn’t throw the right kind of party, serve the right kind of cake, or give the right kind of presents. And she didn’t go to summer camp: tennis camp, fat camp, whatever. Her friends would talk about camp, and she just felt left out.
Then she found out about the Organization of Russian Razvedchiki in America (ORRA), a summer camp for Russian kids. Finally, a camp that she could convince her mother to send her to. She could finally go to camp, experience all the wonderful things her classmates did, and come back with her own stories to tell at sleepovers. Best of all, at a Russian camp, she would finally fit in!
Or so she thought.
As it turned out, camp was hard. She had terrible tentmates. She didn’t know the words to the songs. She hated using the latrine. She worried that she was going to die from rabies from a chipmunk bite. And she didn’t feel like she fit in. But, eventually, Vera figured some things out and achieved some minor victories. She made some friends.
Be Prepared is both funny and painful to read. I remember what it felt like not to fit in, and I’ve never been fond of camp latrines (and many of the other inconveniences of camping) either. I enjoyed learning a little more about Russian culture and also seeing young Vera find her strengths. While the book isn’t entirely true, it’s based on Brosgol’s actual experiences at camp over two summers, with details tweaked and massaged to make a better story.
There are, of course, thousands of books set at summer camp. Here are just a few more titles for you to consider.