Monday, January 09, 2012

Dork Doings: Nerd Camp by Elissa Brent Weissman

Gabe closed Zack's phone. "I'm going to camp!"

"You are the luckiest person in the world!" said Zack. "If it's in the woods, then we can write actual letters!"

I'm not just a nerd, Gabe told himself. Zack wouldn't be friends with me if I was nothing but a nerd.

With the badge of camp honor, Gabe no longer had to make sure everything he said would convince Zack that he was cool.

He just had to make sure Zack didn't find out the truth about Summer Center.

Gabe has always wanted a brother, and he's long dreamed of going to sleep-away camp, and this summer both are going to happen!

Gabe's dad is getting re-married and Gabe is going to have a step-brother, Zack, also ten years old. Zack is Mr. Cool, raised in L.A., surfing in Malibu and texting his cool friends on his own cell, and now that he's moving to New York, the two of them can see each other often. Gabe already suspects that he is a born nerd, though, and when he finds out that he's been accepted to "Nerd Camp," Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment, he's worried about how that's going to look to his future "brother." When Zack glibly remarks that "you can't be on the math team and be cool--all those things make you a geek," Gabe figures out that there's a lot he's going to have to conceal if he wants to hang out with Zack.

But Zack is envious of Gabe's going to a real summer camp, and Gabe realizes that his letters are going to have to be carefully censored. He can say his bunkmates are cool, but he can't say why--that they're all memorizing pi to the twentieth decimal place. He can brag about his swimming medals, but not about his poetry and logic classes. He can tell Zack that they have sports and music posters on their bunk's walls, but not that they are portraits of Beethoven and the rules of badminton. He can brag that he creamed the annoying girl who is stalking him, but not that he bested her by improvising a song listing all the world's countries in alphabetical order.He can describe the camp's epidemic of vampire lice, but he can't report that he actually was invited to the secret Lice Lab of the coolest geeks in camp to see their experiments on the life cycle of Pediculus humorus capitis.

As the summer goes by, Gabe realizes that he is right where he should be: he's a nerd and he is happy in the company of other nerds. As he reads Zack's almost illiterate letters, he wonders if there is going to be any way for them to find common ground as step-brothers if and when Zack discovers who he really is. Gabe may be cool enough to kayak at midnight to Dead Man's Island to help his team win the Color War Scavenger Hunt, but will he ever be cool enough to be Zack's friend? And then Mom's promised end-of-camp surprise turns out to be just what Gabe fears: she's bringing Zack along to pick him up on the last day of camp, and his cover is definitely going to be blown!

Elissa Weissman's funny and poignant latest novel, Nerd Camp (Atheneum, 2011) explores the treacherous Land of 'Tween, where being cool, whatever that is in the current group, is everything. There's little of the "different strokes" philosophy in the middle school years, and Gabe faces the perennial problem of learning to fit in while still being true to yourself. Weissman negotiates this mine field deftly, with plenty of humor and camp adventures interspersed with Gabe's and Zack's letters, hilariously punctuated with Gabe's meticulous tables listing what really is happening at Nerd Camp and what he can safely tell Zack about it and keep his cred. Funny and yet heartfelt, making fans of Andrew Clements' middle reader novels will feel right at home with this one.

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