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Fleen Book Corner: Be Prepared

The last time Vera Brosgol wrote a graphic novel, I had this to say:

I could go on for another 1000 words and still not address these adequately, so let’s just finish up with the facts: Anya’s Ghost goes on sale on 7 June. It is 224 pages long, was written and drawn by Vera Brosgol, and is the best comics work of 2011.

That was just about exactly seven years ago, and if there’s one thing you can say about Brosgol, she’s consistent. Her new autobio-graphic novel from :01 Books (who I thank for the review copy), Be Prepared, goes on sale 24 April. It is 256 pages long, and is the best comics work of 2018. I’ll qualify that with a so far this time, because quite frankly the graphic novel game has gotten so much stronger in the past seven years, and we’ve got books from top flight creators on the way. More about the book below, with spoilers aplenty.

Vera just wants to fit in, like any other nine (almost ten!) year old girl, but she doesn’t. She’s too different, too poor, too Russian. The rules of fitting in are pretty clear (sleepover parties with Carvel ice cream cakes and stuffed-crust pizza), but the execution just isn’t quite there (cake from the Russian bakery, pizza with crusts tragically devoid of stuff) and so she sits on the periphery of grade school social circles, drawing and wondering where she’ll fit in. Most of all, all the other kids clear out for summer camp, leaving Vera and her brother Phil the only kids in town.

Until she learned about a camp where she’d surely fit in — a camp for Russian expat kids and their kids, a camp that understands the mysteries of Slavic language (they keep chiding her to not use English), a camp that knows about the Orthodox ritual, a camp full of kids just like her.

Except even when you’re with the kids you’re just like, snotty teenage girls are still snotty, open-air latrines full of spiders are still disgusting, and boys — from eight to eighteen — are still infuriatingly immature and gross. It’s going to be a long two weeks.

Did I say two? On the day that she’s supposed to come home, Mom has news: she’s got an important job interview, and if Vera and Phil can hang in there another two weeks, it could mean a job that she’s been working towards ever since they came to America; the sort that could keep them from being too poor (but Vera knows she’ll still be too different and too Russian). It’s a huge sacrifice for a nine year old, staying where the other kids hate you and the counselors don’t understand and you have to poop in a hole.

It’s even more painful when she realizes that in some ways, she’s been picking up the mean girl lessons too well; Vera catches herself in some incidences of casual cruelty, shocked at herself. It’s cringey and painful in exactly the right way, like all realizations that make us better people. It accompanies the occasion of making a friend, of rising above the disdain of snotty teen girls, and finding a way to get back at the boys¹. The remainder of camp gets lighter (even if you have to poop in a hole), and the prospect of returning the next year becomes less horrifying — but still not as appealing as the idea of a hike around the park at home, where they have toilets.

I’m certain that when the book launches next week (and sees its premiere at the Alaska Robotics Mini-Con in Juneau, next Saturday), Brosgol will have plenty to talk to kids about. The experiences she writes about are so true, so universal (and so, so funny) that they’re going to declare her a kindred soul. Every kid that finds themselves on the outs, awkward, unsure, hiding behind their glasses, will find themselves in this book, and find a bit of hopefulness for the future.

Because by the end of the book, she’s getting the hang of it just a bit. Maybe her first friend is at Russian camp and lives far away, but she’s a friend. And if she can figure out how to navigate mean girls at Russian camp, she can figure out how to do it back in Albany! She’s finally — finally — starting to feel at home in America, if not yet American.

But to be Russian is to suffer, and there’s one more upheaval in store as the book winds down; Vera didn’t fit in in the upstate suburbs, she didn’t fit in at Russian camp, and now she’ll have the opportunity to reset and not fit in someplace completely new. There’s a natural hook for a sequel in the closing pages, and I just hope it doesn’t take seven years for it to come to fruition.

But if it does? I’ll have a spot on the bookshelves waiting for it — like young Vera, I have learned to Be Prepared.

Be Prepared goes on sale Tuesday, 24 April, at bookstores everywhere.

Spam of the day:

Some things are better left to the professionals

I was afraid to see what kind of pornspam this was, and relieved to see it’s actually for Terminix pest control.

¹ Which required the development of sweet ninja skills. Nine year old (almost ten!) Vera is so cool.

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