Yesterday I discovered this delightful, interesting and funny middle grade novel, entitled Horse Camp, by Nicole Helget and Nate LeBoutillier as I browsed in a local bookstore. The name and the campy cover that includes a pig and a pitch fork promises humor. I wasn't disappointed. And inside were important themes about family and also what it means to be a person of faith.
The Kirkus Review of the novel gives a succinct description of the characters and plot. When the two main characters, 12 year old twins, Penelope and Perceus, are sent to Uncle Stretch's farm after their parents' lives crumble, they have no idea it will be for good. They are told it's a summer camp with horses. The place smells, there's no cell phones, everything is broken down, and there's chicken coops to clean and grass to be mowed! How will Penny and Percy, not to mention their adopted little brother, Pauly, survive even for a summer?
The story is told through the first person present narratives of Percy and Penny in alternating chapters. The twins grieve for their missing parents throughout. As is often the case in real life, Penny feels responsible for the breakup. She says, "I wonder if I could have been a better daughter. I worry that my parents wish they had never had me." She tries her best, as does Percy, to push their generous, loving, but firm Uncle away. But their dependable Uncle doesn't leave, and his girlfriend Sheryl moves in, along with Sheryl's daughter. Relationships deepen. The writing is solid.
In the beginning of the novel, revealed in letters, we see Penny as a parrot of her father, a money-driven, wealthy, womanizing fundamentalist preacher, a hypocritical champion of the nuclear family. She rudely parrots the following to her pen pal Okonkwo in Africa:
I read that there is a lot of adultery and stealing in your part of the world, where not everyone knows about Jesus yet. Maybe when you get your bible, you can teach the other people in your little village Jesus's lessons. That would make donating all this money to you worth it . . .
Penny is intolerant. But the authors show how she gains tolerance through the love of her uncle and his kind girlfriend Sheryl, who include Penny and her two brothers in this new family. The two adults accept and love the three kids and it becomes mutual. In the end, in Penny's letter to her pen pal Okonkwo, she states: You can make a family out of any people you want to. Some people get uptight about the disintegration of the nuclear family, but I don't, and you shouldn't, either.
This story will encourage kids to ponder important questions. What is it that makes relationships last? Can individuals seemingly thrown together by necessity become a real family? Is going to church enough to make you a good person? Can people who aren't outwardly religious still be good people? What makes a true friend? What are the feelings that accompany divorce?
It's a book kids will want to talk about.
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