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Middle Grade Monday: Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon

Camo Girl tells the story of three sixth graders with one thing in common – all have lost their fathers. Title character Ella lives with her mother and grandmother, who moved in to care for her after the death of her father almost three years ago. Ella’s mother travels four days a week to support the family, leaving Ella and her grandmother to carry on alone. Z, Ella’s former neighbor and best friend, lost his father to unemployment and a gambling addiction. After losing his job and their savings, his father abandoned the family. Z and his mother lost their home and now secretly live in the Wal-Mart where Z’s mother works. Bailey, the new kid in town, is also missing his father. We gradually come to learn that Bailey’s father is in a veteran’s psychiatric care facility working to overcome the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he developed after his time in combat.

Ella is well loved, but a bit of a mess. Compounding her grief over the death of her father is her classmates’ regular bullying and ostracism. The ‘camo’ from the title refers to Ella’s skin, most notably the skin on her face. Ella is African American and she has an unnamed condition which causes her skin to be mottled in appearance. After seeing a classmate wearing desert camouflage styled clothing, one of Ella’s tormentors decided to christen her ‘camo face.’ Ella is also bullied and ostracized because of Z. Small for his age and somewhat awkward, Z has only a tenuous hold on reality. His method of coping with the turmoil and stress of his life has been to retreat into a fantasy world. He spends his waking hours pretending to be either ‘Sir Zachariah’, a chivalrous knight, or Agent Z, a lone spy agent. Switching back and forth as situations depend, Z is a knight when he is with his best friend ‘Lady Elinor’ (Ella), or an spy when he must face the world alone. Ella has gone along with these fantasies knowing them to be a coping mechanism, but it has been the main cause of her alienation from the rest of her classmates, particularly her former good friend and still neighbor, who has mostly abandoned Ella and Z in an effort to fit in with the rest of her class. Ella, understandably, doesn’t see the severity of Z’s disconnect from reality, and spends a large portion of her time protecting him from others who tease and bully him.

Bailey enters this situation without any background knowledge. He and his mother have moved to town, and he finds himself as the only other African American student in Ella and Z’s class. Initially a little too good to be believed (thoughtful, caring, understanding of Z’s idiosyncrasies,) Bailey is gradually revealed to be coping with his own father’s absence by seeking to be the ‘cool kid.’ He is a gifted liar who can rapidly diffuse tense situations with humor and charm. Bailey strikes up a friendship with Ella, ostensibly because her house is the only one in the neighborhood with a basketball hoop. Presumably he also finds Ella attractive, although she is quick to discount that, even when Bailey stands up for her repeatedly against the school bullies. Bailey’s friendship comes with a cost for Ella, though. She must now decide how to navigate her friendship with Z (who is used to having her to himself) and Bailey, who offers her both friendship and an avenue for acceptance back into the main stream of her class at school.

This novel is an excellent exploration of some of the classic elements of middle grade fiction. Self acceptance, family and friendship relationships, and dealing with loss and change are prominent themes. There are several difficult topics dealt with both realistically and sensitively, seamlessly woven in to the well written story. Logically consequences for actions are presented, and answers for those seeking help are presented without becoming didactic or distracting from the plot. I do somewhat wish that the thematic elements related to Ella’s skin and self acceptance hadn’t been so explicitly addressed in the last few pages, but that is a minor distraction and probably only noticeable to the adult reader.

Those seeking to add more diverse titles to their library or classroom collections would do well to purchase this, along with Magoon’s other titles. I’m looking forward to stocking her books on our shelves for years to come.

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