REVIEW: Brain Camp

Brain Camp by Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan & Faith Erin HicksBrain Camp
Written by Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan
Art by Faith Erin Hicks
Colors by Hilary Sycamore

$16.99 / 151 Pages / Full Color 

First Second Books

I grew up in a household where a lot of value was placed on achievement. I never got sent off to boarding school or anything, and I didn't find myself practicing violin for three hours a day, but we were definitely one of those "drill every night for the spelling bee" kind of houses. I took home my share of straight-A report cards only to have my dad regard them disdainfully for a moment and say, "No A-pluses, huh?" No matter how hard you push yourself in a house like that, you start to get the sense that you can jump as high as you like, but there's always going to be another hurdle around the next corner. You start to think seriously, "These people would actually sell off my soul to get me into Harvard."

Having grown up this way is probably why I related so strongly to the characters in Brain Camp, despite the fact that I haven't been in the actual target audience for the book in about twenty-five years. This is definitely a "young adults" book– one of the authors, Susan Kim, has a background in children's television, having written for Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Courage, the Cowardly Dog— but it still has the power to entertain the older and more jaded among us. That's the kids' book's secret weapon: everybody was a kid once.

Brain Camp tells the story of Lucas and Jenna, two underachievers who find themselves shipped off to the mysterious Camp Fielding by parents who are so eager to see them make something of themselves that they barely even stop to ask questions before packing their kids' bags for the summer. Jenna is a 14 year old who spends too much time with her head in the clouds and not enough time with her nose in a book; Lucas is a burnout who spends too much time behind the wheels of cars that don't belong to him. They only thing they have in common (at first) is disappointed parents and a deep suspicion of the camp and the way their bunkmates have a habit of transforming from thugs to thinkers overnight. The camp counselors who keep coming into the cabins with syringes after everyone's asleep aren't exactly reassuring, either. What is Camp Director Fielding planning behind his steepled fingers in his dark, wood-paneled office? The deeper they dig, the closer they become and the creepier things get. It's only a matter of time before they go from bonding in the cafeteria to being chased through the woods by zombie math whizzes.

Brain Camp seems like literary catnip for today's overscheduled preteen, facing pressure from all directions in the ten minutes between their karate class and piano lesson. Hicks' art is expressive and tells the story evocatively, favoring a more cartoony style over the more "realistic" art many readers have come to expect in this marketplace. The characters and many of the problems they face (zombie math whizzes and brainwashers notwithstanding) are extremely relatable, although the book's action is a bit too fast-paced to really get to know anyone particularly well; everyone's off to camp before they've even gotten two pages each to tell you who they are. I also finished the book a little unclear about what the villains' endgame was supposed to be, but then maybe I've just reached an age where I ask too many nitpicky questions for a book like this.

Is Brain Camp recommended for the typical iFanboy reader? That's a rather tricky question. It's certainly not Marvel Zombies or The Walking Dead. Still, anyone with fond memories of camp– or, better yet, traumatic ones– would probably find themselves getting drawn into the book regardless of age. If you're as creeped out as I am by body snatchers, zombies, mind control and possessions, so much the better. I should note that this was one of the top five fastest reads I have ever had in my life, which is a testament both to its storytelling and to the fact that I am older than its typical intended audience.

This book would, however, be an excellent, unqualified recommendation for anyone who wants to get a young person into comics. It makes excellent use of the medium, and for an eleven year old who's skeptical of the usual superhero fare it is a brilliantly designed gateway drug. Most importantly, it respects a kid's intelligence, even if that kid isn't getting into Yale at fourteen.


Story: 4     Art: 4     Overall: 4


  1. I’m gonna have to check this one out. I take my certification tests in the fall and should start teaching the year after that, so I’ve been looking for books to have in my classroom. Comics for older elementary students can be hard to find.

  2. Your first two paragraphs sold me, I grew up in that kind of a household too. I wanna go in knowing as little as possible so I’ll read the rest of the review once I get & finish the book, cant wait!

  3. Thanks for the heads-up  on this one!  I love Hicks’ art and will have to check it out.