I went to summer camp in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. From the time I was eight years old until I was deep into high school, I lived at Camp Akiba for eight weeks each summer. I adored summer camp. Or at least that's how I feel when I look back on it now. Akiba was a wonderful place, our days packed with all kinds of activities, our nights spent snuggled in our bunks under "jelly rolls" (scratchy wool blankets we'd roll to the end of our beds every morning).
So, I always look forward to a camp novel: prose that sings the praise of warm summer days and nights filled with the sounds of crickets and bullfrogs.
Which does NOT describe Camp Omigoshee, the boys' "transformation camp" of Kate Beasley's Lions & Liars (FSG, 2018). Camp Omigoshee is where poor Frederick Frederickson finds himself after an unfortunate boating incident. Most fifth graders in Frederick's place would probably find a camp counselor and call Mom ASAP. But Frederick has other ideas. At camp, he's not flea-biting-the-butt-of-a-meerkat Frederick Frederickson, loser extraordinaire. At camp, he's Dash Brightwood, delinquent legend and tough guy. At least, that's who everyone thinks he is since the real Dash Brightwood hasn't yet shown up for camp. And as long as everyone thinks he's Dash, Frederick has a shot at being more than a flea; he may even be a lion.
Frederick and his Group 13 bunkmates circle around one another for awhile and form some tentative friendships. But there's little to prepare Frederick for what he's about to face: a Category Five hurricane is headed straight for Camp Omigoshee, and Frederick in for a boatload of trouble...
Lions & Liars is sure to remind readers of Louis Sachar's Holes: the "camp" for delinquent boys who turn out to be not-so-delinquent, the tough-as-nails adults in charge, the "What more can happen to this kid?" plot twists. Not to mention the main character with the funny name. But Lions & Liars is much tamer than Holes and doesn't go into issues of race and bigotry. Kate Beasley's book is very much focused on Frederick, his emotions, and his growth. I found myself rooting for Frederick by the time Hurricane Hernando bears down on him and his pal Ant Bite. Frederick basically admits that he's not a particularly likeable kid at the beginning of the book. But he overcomes many obstacles through the course of the book and he gives a lot of thought to how he's behaving and how he's coming off to others. He becomes an endearing character who finds that even fleas can get by if they find some good friends along the way.
Kate Beasley's writing is very engaging. Kids will fly through this book and will find the hurricane scene edge-of-your-seat exciting. Dan Santat's wonderful illustration are sprinkled throughout the book. They enhance the prose by conveying the kids' facial expressions and actions with realism but also with tenderness. This is especially true of the illustration of Frederick and his new friends lying in a star pattern on the road outside of camp.
I'm grateful my summers at camp were nothing like the days at Camp Omigoshee. I don't think I would have survived Frederick's ordeals. The worst thing that happened at Camp Akiba was when they ran out of chocolate milk at the afternoon snack break!