The Devil’s Not in the Details. The Delight’s in the Details.
I dare you: Try saying that blog-post title ten times fast.
I just finished reading Elissa Brent Weissman’s Nerd Camp. If I hadn’t seen that the book was a finalist in the Middle-Grade category of the Cybils awards, I might not have picked it up. The premise of (another) kid feeling guilty and embarrassed about his geeky/nerdy pleasures didn’t pull at me. But I SO trust the Cybils judges. I put in on my Please-Give-Me-Some-of-These-Ebooks-for-Xmas list and, voila, it was waiting for me my inbox Xmas morning.
The premise still isn’t what makes the book, for me, anyway. Gabe is getting a new step-brother, and the boys get along great at their first meeting, except that Zack is pretty much a downer on school, reading, math teams–all the things that make Gabe’s life happy. And this meeting is just before Gabe takes off for six weeks of sleep-away camp–Gifted Camp. Or Geek Camp. Depending on your perspective. Gabe’s debate about keeping his geekdom secret or potentially risking his friendship with this new step-bro isn’t, as I said, all that new. What makes the book so fun, in my opinion, is all the details Weissman chooses to show us the humor, fun, excitement, and sheer happiness of geekitude. Little things, like, just before Gabe’s big lake adventure (that’s as much as you’re getting–no spoilers!), his timid bunkmate gives him “an article from National Geographic Kids about what causes rapids, which was informative.” Because, you know, there are so many rapids in a lake. But the detail fits perfectly with the “Just in Case” personality of this bunkmate. And note that Gabe sees it as “informative,” not necessarily helpful. That’s not a negative, for Gabe and his friends; they’re just assigning the article a different value. Happily.
Gabe starts a chart of things he can tell Zack in a letter–the things that make the camp seem cool–with another column of the things he can’t tell Zack without revealing the true nerdosity of the events/activities. Again, this could have been a chart that didn’t get me–it could have been trite, cliché, already done. Why was it so very much not that? Because Weissman does such a beautiful job of summarizing, precis-ing, nailing the details of the chapters we’ve just read and putting them into Gabe’s chart notes. Every time, in every column, she picks the perfect detail to make the event sound exciting, adventurous and so rockingly awesome that Zack will be seething with jealousy. And then in the next column she details the geek factor that, if Gabe were to share it with Zack, would yank the coolness mask right off.
I had a fun time reading the book, with lots of laughs and lots of “Oh, yeahs.” I also really loved Gabe and his friends, all the campers, because the stuff they were doing was so cool, but mostly because of the sheer fun and laughter they got out of doing it. I wanted to be involved in pretty much everything. Okay, maybe not memorizing all those digits of Pi. But the Breaking of Color Wars?! You bet! (No, I’m not telling you about that? Go read the book!)
After I finish this post, I’ll be sitting down to shuffle through the sections of my Capstone history book, look at my notes, think about the info I’ve gleaned, and…yeah. Pick the details. The details that will show what was going on way back when, that will highlight events in an action in a way that will catch both my young readers and me. (If I don’t engage, believe me–the kids reading the book won’t either.) And I have to share those details in a way that, like Weissman’s writing, gets some kind of emotional reaction out of my readers. That reaction may not be laughter, but it better be something–interest, intrigue, curiosity, an eye-opening Really?!
How about a little Share-and-Tell in the comments. What book can you think of, that you’ve read in the past few years, that had serious power in the details. A book in which the author picked and chose beautifully. A book you still remember, because of those details. The list will be more fodder for our 2013 reading lists!