Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Book of the Week: NERD CAMP by Elissa Brent Weissman

Are you a nerd, Esteemed Reader? I think it’s well-established at this point that the Ninja is and I suspect some of you are as well. How would you like a XL Nerd Camp tee-shirt sent to me straight from Elissa Brent Weissman? Would you like a signed copy of Nerd Camp highlighted and marked up with the ninja’s notes? That would be nice, but I’m keeping the book:) I’ll give you the tee-shirt, though.

Here’s what ya gotta do: comment on this post and include the phrase I’m a nerd! Entries will be accepted until midnight, October 3rd, and the winner will be announced in next week’s Book of the Week post. But don’t forget to come back Thursday to see Elissa Brent Weissman face the 7 Questions.

I know what you’re thinking, Esteemed Reader: I want that shirt more than I've ever wanted anything, but I mustn't reveal my nerdiness to the world in so public and mainstream a place as a blog intended for authors of middle grade fiction. Curse you, Ninja, you drive a bargain forged in the fires of Hell!”

Mwuhaha, Esteemed Reader. Mwuhaha.

Nerd Camp is a hilarious read and it even features a cameo from Alex Tribeck! It’s a fun story that young nerds and old nerds alike can relate to. Pack your bags and head to Nerd Camp this summer!
     --Robert Kent, Middle Grade Ninja

Sorry about that, Esteemed Reader. I was just thinking ahead to when the anniversary edition of Nerd Camp is released and naturally, I assume Antheum Books for Young Readers will insist it include a blurb from yours truly on the cover. I’m just trying to make it easy for them:)

But even if the copy you get your hands on does not feature my blurb (for shame), you should go ahead and buy it anyway. Wiessman has crafted a fine middle grade novel worth reading and studying.

So here’s the deal: Gabe’s dad is getting married and he’s getting a new half brother, Zack. An only child, Gabe has always longed for a brother. He can’t wait to meet Zack and you just know they’re going to be best friends. Brothers don’t shake hands. Brothers gotta hug! Everything is going perfect until Zack drops this bombshell: “Gabe, I’m really your mother reincarnated.” Wait no, that’s a dream I had:) Here’s the actual bombshell:

“…You can’t be on a math team and be cool. Math team, gifted program, hanging out and reading—all those things automatically make you a geek… Get this. This kid in my class, he’s such a nerd that he wants to keep going to school over the summer. So he’s going to this special nerd camp. That must be the most boringest place in the world.”

What's nerdy about reading? The problem is that Gabe himself is a nerd! And he’s going to Nerd Camp TM! And his mother is not dead! Actually, she’s just divorced from his father and good on them because they get along as partial friends. She congratulates him on his pending nuptials and they appear to have put whatever differences they have aside to focus on being Gabe’s parents. Good on Weissman for showing their relationship as nothing out of the ordinary, enforcing the notion that divorced couples with children should behave this way.

Nerd Camp is not actually about Zack and Gabe. It’s about Gabe going to camp, the fellow nerds he meets there, the adventures they have, and even a summer romance (middle grade style). That’s why it’s called Nerd Camp and not My New Half Brother (Who Used to be My Mother). From page 38 to 236, Weissman’s focus is logic problems and karaoke and other painfully nerdy things that made the ninja remember his own misspent nerdy youth.

So my question to you is why doesn’t Weissman start the book with Gabe’s arrival at Nerd Camp? Isn’t everything else just needless exposition slowing down the main story? True, the passages of Gabe, who is among the nerdiest nerds who ever nerded, attempting to hide his true self from Zack are among the funniest in the novel. But we’re talking about 63 pages in a 257 page book, or to put that in nerd terms, 24.51%, nearly one fourth of the Nerd Camp book is less about Nerd Camp and more about Zack and Gabe. Funny or not, unless there’s a point, these pages need to be cut.

But there is a point, or I wouldn’t have brought it up. Let us imagine you and I sat down to write a book about Nerd Camp, not that we're going to do it now that Weissman beat us to it:) But if we did, we'd start with the big picture: our hero, let's call him, oh, I don't know, Gabe, is a nerd looking forward to Nerd Camp. He's going to have a great time singing and learning and he might just have something going with that Amanda chick. It's a decent start, but we're going to need some conflict. Let's see... there's competitions, so Gabe will be in conflict with other campers, and we could make Amanda a force of antagonism for at least part of the story.

Editor: Good, good. But what's this story about?
Us: Nerd Camp.
Editor: Yes, I know, but what about Nerd Camp?
Us: It's awesome.
Editor: Let me put this another way: how is Gabe different at the end of the novel than he is at the beginning?
Us: He's been to Nerd Camp. Duh.
Editor: No, no. There must be a conflict that makes Gabe universally identifiable and makes the novel an accessable read even to non-nerds.
Us: Oh. Well, he could always worry about whether or not he's accepted socially and learn not to worry so much about what others think.
Editor: Brilliant! That's a staple of MG/YA literature. Who hasn't felt like a nerd and been led to question themselves? I'm going to publish your book and one day it will be reviewed by the Middle Grade Ninja!
Us: All our dreams just came true! I hope the ninja remembers to write his review with a separate blurb we can put on the cover of the anniversary edition!
Editor: Indeed.

And there we have it. But how to demonstrate Gabe's internal struggle with nerdiness? By giving him an external conflict that highlights and contributes to his internal conflict, of course. There are any number of ways to do this. My preference would be with zombies and/or sharks, but for the sake of brevity, let's look at how Weissman did it. She's given Gabe a half brother worth taking up one fourth of her novel for.

Gabe's fear about Zack finding out he's a nerd isn't about Zack. Who cares what Zack thinks? He's only in one fourth of the book:) Gabe's real issue is he thinks he's a nerd (he's right) and  he disapproves. Ah so, Grasshopper. Don't get me wrong, Zack's a fine character and written believably, but the point of his being included in this tale of Nerd Camp is so Gabe can have this moment:

The Gabe part of Gabe wanted to agree, but ever since the night of his karaoke routine, he was starting to look at things the way Zack might look at them. And reading was definitely not cool. Reading, in fact, was the very first strike Zack had discovered against him. Gabe didn't think he needed to stop reading--he would never do that--but he didn't think he needed to advertise his love of it, either.

A Gabe divided against himself cannot stand. Gabe reaches the same point we all must reach when we ask ourselves are we happy with the person we are, regardless of what others think? 

And that's going to do it. Don't forget to comment to win your Nerd Camp tee-shirt and come on back on Thursday to see Elissa Brent Weissman face the 7 Questions. I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Nerd Camp:

Gabe’s clothes and camp supplies were laid out across his bed, grouped into categories and stacked in piles. It was a clothing city with T-shirt towers, notebook parks, and a sweatpants river running through the center. Gabe rolled a piece of paper and held it to his mouth like a megaphone. “Attention, residents of Clothes-for-Camp City. This is your mayor speaking. Prepare to be moved into a suitcase and taken to camp. I repeat, prepare to be moved into a suitcase and taken to camp. I repeat, prepare to be moved into a suitcase. You will be transported to camp first thing in the morning…”
…Gabe made his arm into a wrecking ball and rammed it through the T-shirt stack. He simulated the collapse noise. “Poooochchchch!”
His mom was not amused.
“What?” Gabe said as he gathered the T-shirts into a ball and dropped them into his suitcase. “The city has to come down to be transported. I warned the residents. They evacuated.”

Zack rolled his eyes, and Gabe rushed into the bathroom to avoid letting Zack see him turn red. Once there, he debated just wearing his T-shirt and underwear to sleep, but, pressing his luck, he reluctantly put on the pajamas he’d brought: a pair of pants and a shirt that had the entire human skeleton on them. Zack raised his eyebrows but didn’t comment, and Gabe’s clavicles sunk. At least Zack didn’t know that he had brought these pajamas on purpose and had planned on performing an original song and dance that named all the bones. He made sure to be in his sleeping bag before his dad turned the lights out, so that Zack wouldn’t see that the bones glowed in the dark.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.


  1. I am a nerd, and all three of my children are, too. (They can quote Monty Python on long car trips. Sigh.) We all love Weird Al Yankovic because he sings the theme song of Our People: White and Nerdy. My son gave a dramatic reading of that at his high school poetry recitation competition and WON. He would wear the t shirt. I'll hunt down the book to read!

  2. "I am a nerd," said Ms. Yingling--and I believe her. Unfortunately, I am not a nerd, and have probably been mean to nerds a time or two during the old schooldays. But karma is a wonderful thing, folks. Because now nerds rule the world and I'm their chauffeur.

    Great, great interview, Rob! Keep 'em coming!

  3. I am a nerd! My four-year-old son only seems to laugh at cartoons when I lose my composure and giggle like a true nerd...32 and still a nerd.


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.