Review by Frank Plowright
Born in Russia, but having moved to the USA when she was five, Vera Brosgol used feelings of alienation from when she was younger to inform the fictional Anya’s Ghost. That isolation and a desire to fit in forms the focus of the more overtly autobiographical Be Prepared. She’s a great communicator, easily channelling her younger self to convey the awkward knowledge of being different, of wanting to make the step from one culture to another, with her mother not understanding the importance. All her American friends go to summer camp during the school holidays, but the young Vera has an awareness that she’ll still be an outsider. She’s delighted when she discovers there’s a Russian Orthodox summer camp in Connecticut.
Brosgol doesn’t disclose specific expectations beforehand, but is excited enough to have everything packed a week before departure. Her arrival coincides with a child going missing, an early discovery of the horrors of the camp toilet, and a frosty reception from the two girls she’ll be sharing a tent with. Her younger brother stays in the boys’ camp, and the first letter he sent home is reproduced to start the book, begging to be picked up immediately.
At nine Brosgol was ill equipped to deal with girls half as old again, and a lesson learned hard is that friendships bought are no real friendships at all. The first week of a planned two week stay is one humiliation or disappointment after another until her artistic skill wins a temporary reprieve. That skill has blossomed immensely. Barring illness and tragedy there are few sights as upsetting as a consistently unhappy child, and the adult Brosgol presents her younger self as someone sorely in need of a hug via the depth of feeling in her cartooning. Still, while she’s aware her previous enthusiasm has been misplaced, at least the young Brosgol only has to last two weeks. Or so she thinks.
An unwanted extension proves transformative. Without the possibility of returning home, the young Brosgol buys into the camp ethos for the first time and there’s an extra motivational factor of actually looking forward to the tests that will end the month. She’s true to her own personality and wins through.
There’s an undeniable tone of setting an example that parents throughout the USA will appreciate, but the entire story is presented with such charm and panache that youngsters reading will soak it in without realising. Brosgol discloses afterwards that while the feelings are honest and most of the experiences happened to either her or someone in her family, they’ve been conflated with some additional dramatic points to present a more readable account. The honesty is commendable, but in terms of what’s just been read it’s irrelevant. Be Prepared captures the trepidations and joys of the summer camp, and excellent green tones added by colourist Alex Longstreth provide an appropriate woodland atmosphere sealing a first rate young adult drama.