Ghost stories and s’mores. Friendship bracelets and three-legged races. Trail mix, canoe trips, stars visible from a cozy bunk. For some kids who’ve been lucky enough to belt out “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” on a bus bound for the middle of nowhere, these are the touchstones of a place that becomes the center of everything — a backdrop for little lessons and big mileposts, a haven to return to year after year. For others, sleepaway camp is a hellscape of mystery meat, mean counselors, itchy sunburn, belly flops and kickballs to the gut. Their letters are desperate pleas for compassionate release, with nary a mention of the stained glass workshop or floating trampoline that made the program attractive to begin with.
Between these poles — happy camper and homesick puppy — lies a Great Lake-size library of literature, one that’s a lot less expensive to access than the firsthand experience. An armchair explorer could dip into a different sleepaway story every day for the whole summer and still not exhaust the subgenre by Labor Day.
To lose yourself in a camp tale is to beam yourself out of the sweaty monotony of your actual summer and into the sun-kissed universe of “The Parent Trap.” The thrills are vicarious and the miseries are validating in an entry-level schadenfreude kind of way. Here are seven flashlight-under-the-blanket page-turners to get you started — four of them recently released and the other three tried and true.
“Camp Sylvania,” by Julie Murphy
On the last day of fifth grade, Maggie Hagen is counting the minutes until she can escape to Camp Rising Star with her best friend, Nora. “This is the summer that I’ve waited my whole life for,” she tells us. “This is the summer.” That is, until her parents announce a change of plans: Maggie is headed to Camp Sylvania, “a place for big dreams, big fun and big weight loss.” It’s a cruel bait and switch — one that raises a question: Do kids really need to know about “fat camp”? Rest assured, Murphy tackles the phenomenon with grace, establishing Maggie’s unsinkability so swiftly you can’t help following her into the belly of the beast. What she finds there is haunting, in the witchy sense of the word. She learns that she can do terrifying things, and that revenge is deliciously sweet.
“Cosmos Camp (Epic Ellisons, Book 1),” by Lamar Giles. Illustrated by Morgan Bissant.
Before you’ve reached the first page of this clever novel about twin sisters at a STEM camp for space enthusiasts, Giles sets the stage for boundless aspiration — first by dedicating the book to “the stargazers and trailblazers,” then with an epigraph from Mae Jemison, the first Black woman astronaut in space: “Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity or your curiosity.” At Cosmos Camp, hosted by the tech juggernaut Petey Thunkle (whose company invented flying cars), Wiki and Leen Ellison will have a chance to see Interstellar-Z antifriction coating with their own eyes. But the twins are in for a challenge of galactic proportions — and it makes their usual farm chores look like a spacewalk.
“Spy Camp: The Graphic Novel,” by Stuart Gibbs. Illustrated by Anjan Sarkar.
Welcome to the C.I.A.’s Academy of Espionage, a.k.a. Happy Trails Sleepaway Camp for Boys and Girls, the setting of Gibbs’s second Spy School novel, now in comics form. “Highly Classified,” says an official-looking stamp. “If you read this without permission, you’re in BIG TROUBLE!” Ben (Smokescreen) Ripley is to spies what Nancy Drew is to sleuths: a better-than-average amateur with an uncanny knack for landing in situations that require his particular skills. In a meta twist, trouble follows Ben to survival training camp, where it appears that spies have infiltrated the spies. So much for kicking back like a regular 13-year-old. But where’s the fun in that anyway?
“Sunshine: How One Camp Taught Me About Life, Death and Hope,” by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
“I was 16 when I first worked at a camp for kids with life-threatening illnesses,” Krosoczka writes. “It forever changed the trajectory of my life.” This powerful follow-up to his graphic memoir “Hey, Kiddo” (a finalist for the National Book Award) is Krosoczka’s response to the knee-jerk reaction “It must have been so sad.” Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. In gradually brightening, gorgeously detailed illustrations, with the occasional photograph layered in, he transports us to Camp Sunshine, where courage, humor and patience are the most important items on the agenda. How sad is the book itself? That depends on one’s threshold for unanswerable questions.
“To Night Owl From Dogfish,” by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer
Bett Devlin and Avery Bloom are 12-year-old strangers living on opposite coasts when they discover that their dads are secretly in love with each other and conspiring to send them to camp in Michigan together. CIGI (Challenge Influence Guide Inspire) is a sports-free haven offering classes in robotics and archaeology, according to Avery, who can’t wait to attend. Bett is less keen. Here’s how our reviewer described their epistolary extravaganza: “Built on a foundation of absurdity, coincidence and the occasional rather good one-liner, the novel manages the difficult balancing act of using increasingly ridiculous, and often funny, situations to drill home the idea that every close relationship takes hard work, particularly when things start going south.” (Looking for a camp read for grown-ups? Check out Wolitzer’s novel “The Interestings.”)
“Be Prepared,” by Vera Brosgol. Color by Alec Longstreth.
“Dear Mom, Camp is NOTHING like I expected,” writes Vera, the intrepid goggle-eyed star of Brosgol’s winsome graphic novel about the Russian summer camp she attended in the woods of Connecticut when she was 9. While her wealthy school friends are enjoying all-American camp experiences, Vera lands at a church-sponsored outfit complete with uniforms, language lessons and a “no candy” rule that means no s’mores. Vera’s facial expressions alone make this story worthwhile — an eyebrow has never telegraphed such dismay — but the real treasure here is Brosgol’s reminder that we all feel like outsiders sometimes, regardless of the seals on the covers of our passports.
“Sports Camp,” by Rich Wallace
Riley Liston is no stranger to athletic pursuits. But Camp Olympia presents unexpected perils befitting its location on the shores of Lake Surprise, most notably the specter of a giant snapping turtle. As with so many supposedly fun destinations, the place looks nothing like its brochure. The cabins are grubby, the kids are bullies and the schedule is a dizzying rotation of basketball, softball, water polo, canoe races, running relays and tug of war, culminating in a mile-long swim race. Two weeks in the wilderness feels like a lifetime for this willing but puny 11-year-old — and endurance is the least of his problems.
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”
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