Gabe is ten years old. He loves logic problems, has three favorite books (“one for fiction, one for nonfiction, and one that’s kind of in between”), and he’s always wished he had a brother. So when his dad is getting remarried, Gabe is really excited about meeting his new soon-to-be stepbrother, Zack, who’s the same age. Since Zack will be living in Manhattan with Gabe’s dad, he’s close enough to visit and do fun city stuff, but Gabe won’t have to deal with full-time sibling annoyances like “both needing the P volume of the encyclopedia at the same time.”
Of course, when Gabe finally meets Zack, he discovers that Zack is cool. He’s got spiky hair, his own cell phone, and pretty quickly declares that “reading’s boring.” Suddenly Gabe’s “All-Star Readers 2010” duffel bag seems a bit embarrassing, and his excitement at meeting his future stepbrother is tempered by the fear that he can’t live up to Zack’s definition of “cool.” Math team? Not cool. Gifted program? Not cool. Hanging out and reading? That’s three strikes.
The one thing about Gabe that Zack does think is cool is that Gabe gets to go to sleepaway camp this summer—Zack’s mom won’t let him go until he’s twelve. But what Gabe doesn’t tell Zack is that the camp he’s going to is the Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment, where he’ll be taking classes in poetry and logical reasoning on top of the usual summer camp activities like kayaking and swimming.
Welcome to Nerd Camp, a new book for young readers by Elissa Brent Weissman. Weissman teaches at the Johns Hopkins’s Center for Talented Youth—a nerd camp of sorts—and considers herself a proud nerd. Her book is inspired by the many cool nerds that she meets every summer. Although I never went to the CTY myself, I’ve heard comments from many adults who attended as kids and they say that Nerd Camp really captures the feel of being at this academics-based summer program.
But the book isn’t just about a kid having a good time doing geeky things. It’s about Gabe’s struggle to fit in, his attempt to compartmentalize his summer camp experience into “Things I Can Tell Zack” and “Things I Can’t Tell Zack.” (For instance: “My bunkmates are really cool, and we became friends right away!” vs. “They like learning digits of pi.”) I’d like to say that in this day and age, our kids don’t need books like this anymore. I’d like to believe that we, a generation of geeks who have become parents, are doing a great job of telling our kids that being smart is a great thing—and certainly there are kids (like those profiled in The New Cool) who are proud of being geeks. On the other hand, you still hear stories about kids like Katie, who got teased for having a Star Wars water bottle and just about gave up on her favorite show.
Throughout the book, which is filled with fun characters and some truly geeky activities, Gabe sometimes feels ashamed of his geeky bunkmates and what Zack would think of them—and sometimes he’s ashamed of Zack and how his bunkmates would see him. In the end, though, he embraces his smarts and manages to be cool. The cynic in me isn’t quite ready to believe that sort of ending is possible, but the parent in me knows that the book really couldn’t end any other way.
The book is a lot of fun to read, and Weissman throws in funny similes like this one: “Gabe’s stomach sank like it had the time he’d realized he’d written a whole book report without remembering to indent for new paragraphs. Like all his hard work was somehow wrong.” There are some similarities between Nerd Camp and Millicent Min: Girl Genius by Lisa Yee, although Gabe is not off-the-charts brilliant like Millie, just a bright kid who likes to read and learn. Although the book has some good lessons for kids of all stripes, I think the most likely audience is going to be kids who are like Gabe—middle-schoolers who like books and are a bit geeky themselves. I don’t know that it’s necessarily one that non-nerds would really enjoy.
If you’ve got bright kids who are starting to worry about peer pressure and being cool, get them a copy of Nerd Camp. It might not make them cooler in the eyes of their peers, but it may help them embrace their geekiness.
Disclosure: Atheneum Books provided a review copy of Nerd Camp.