By Kekla Magoon
Middle Grade, Ages 10 to 14, Grades 5 and up
Simon & Schuster, 2011
additional formats: e-book
NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens *ALA Notable Children’s Book Nominee *Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best *Kirkus Best Children’s Book *Maine Student Book Award Master List *Virginia Readers’ Choice Award Master List
Z and Ella are best friends. Since starting sixth grade, though, Z has been cast out by their group of friends because, while a genius, he “just comes across as weird.” When Z starts to withdraw into an imaginary world, Ella stays loyal to him, and because of that devotion the kids at school ostracize Ella, too. She also has a skin condition on her face called vitiligo, which her former friends start to ridicule.
The changes occurring in Z are scary, but Ella sees everyday how hard things are for him since his father left. Z’s mom lost their house, and the two of them are secretly living in the Walmart, where his mom works. Z’s only connection to the world, besides the library, is Ella. She is his protector and defender, and he pretends that he is hers. Ella accepts that staying loyal to Z, even as he descends deeper and deeper into his own troubled imagination, will mean she is tortured by their peers every day. She keeps a change of clothes in her locker for the days when the teasing is brutal and her clothes get ruined in the cafeteria.
While Ella loves her friend Z dearly and becomes his strong advocate, her family has struggled, too. Ella’s father passed away when she was a baby, and Grammie has moved in to help while Ella’s mom works away from home during the week. The granddaughter-grandmother relationship between Ella and Grammie is rich and tender and loving. But even this can’t make up for how badly Ella suffers at school.
Enter Bailey Jones. The new guy. A basketball star. And the only other black kid in the school besides Ella. At first, he knows nothing about the cruel socialscape that Ella and Z are trapped in. Bailey only sees that Ella is cute and funny and headstrong. As it turns out, he does know something of feeling afraid and not good enough. And he knows something of missing his father, too. As a friendship develops between Ella and Bailey, Z begins to self-destruct. Ella has to choose her course: Bailey and the popular crowd or Z, her true friend.
What I love about Camo Girl is how Kekla Magoon portrays the volatile urgency of the sixth grade social scene. The book is set in Nevada, and the harsh desert landscape of extremes is the perfect setting for a story about the extreme swings of middle school friendships. The main character, Ella, confronts big questions and big feelings. Through it all, and with her steady Grammie backing her up, Ella shows courage and willingness to take risks on behalf of her friends, her family, and herself. GA