This month, the BookKids team takes on the Reading Without Walls challenge! Below, our Kids’ Event Coordinator, Eugenia, writes about her experience reading outside her comfort zone.
As booksellers, we try our best to read as much as we can, not only for our own reading pleasure but in order to recommend books for every type of reader. Even though I actively try to push myself, we all have our reading gaps. So, I always look forward to the Reading Without Walls challenge in April, because it’s a fun way to challenge myself and fellow booksellers to read outside our comfort zones and explore diversity in reading. If you’re unfamiliar with the challenge, you basically try to read outside your comfort zone in one (or more) of the following ways:
This year, my pick was staring me right in the face. An early reader’s copy of Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol had already made the rounds at BookPeople, mainly with booksellers who adore graphic novels. That’s their thing. I do enjoy graphic novels — Spinning by Tillie Walden and Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham are two recent favorites — but it’s not what I usually gravitate towards. So, it checked that box. Once I started reading, I quickly learned the story is autobiographical, and the artist is Russian. Checked another box. Oh, and it happens to be about going away to camp? In the woods? Uh, yeah, camping isn’t really my thing — the closest I’ve ever gotten to camping is a fancy hipster tent with a heated mattress in Marfa, Texas. I am going to consider that checking the “topic you don’t know much about” box. Check!
Sigh. I immediately fell in love with Be Prepared and with Brosgol’s style. Her illustrations are remarkably expressive — HOW can someone convey so much with two cartoon eyeballs?! My brain can’t even process it. Be Prepared is beautifully drawn and relatable. Within the first few pages, I was suddenly transported to my 12-year-old body — squirmy and gross and out of place. Even though Vera and I grew up very differently — she, a Russian immigrant in the U.S., while I grew up in México surrounded by people who looked, talked, and lived the same way I did. I was never made fun of for my accent growing up because we all spoke the same language, and I was privileged enough to have nice sleepovers with friends. But I know nothing about sleeping in the woods or the rituals of camp, so I was learning along with Vera — oh, wait, you’re NOT supposed to feed wild animals? *shrugs*
Unlike Vera, I never had any trouble making friends, but physically I stood out, chubby and awkward. I look at old pictures now and I was always surrounded by beautiful girls, and there I am, smack-dab in the middle: greasy forehead, braces, double chin. I look happy, but I remember what 12-year-old Eugenia was feeling. Ugh.
Be Prepared describes that feeling — being lonely, left out, confused — so vividly that I felt uncomfortable reading the book. At one point, I confronted a coworker who’d read the book, Maya, and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me this book is so sad?!” She laughed, responding, “But it’s so real. And so good!” She is right. I returned to Vera’s story, cringing again and again.
Be Prepared is a coming-of-age story about one excruciating summer in the life of Vera Brosgol. Through one specific situation, the artist describes universal feelings and experiences. To me, it still proved to be a fantastic Reading Without Walls pick because it conveyed all of these feelings in a way I don’t usually explore. The format was a wonderful way to express the character’s loneliness, and a fun way to throw in a bit of Russian here and there. I sometimes include Spanish in my own writing, because that is how I actually speak, with a mix of Spanish and English, inside and out of my brain. I love that Vera included Russian in her art, especially for readers who wouldn’t ordinarily pick out a book in a different language. It’s a fresh reminder that your friends might be speaking a different language at home, or in church, or at summer camp — which is pretty normal in a nation of immigrants, and really freakin’ cool.
I LOVED Be Prepared and I can’t wait to share it with as many readers as possible! You can pre-order it now online, and celebrate its release on April 24.
Stay tuned for the rest of the Reading Without Walls series!
— Eugenia, Kids’ Event Coordinator