Summer seems sundered a little sooner each and every year. I remember wandering through an Ohio Valley August that burnt brown, the fields around my Lexington, Kentucky, home so blasted and brittle it was as if they’d been baked in an oven, the sky a shining sheet every bit as flat and hot as an industrial griddle. By the time Labor Day rolled around, I was ready to deal with pens and pencils, friends and fire alarms, hard-backed desks and barely remembered lessons. Things are different now. My children troupe back to school during high summer, and such an abbreviated break makes me a little sad. Still, I’m glad there are books like Taryn Souders’ How to (Almost) Ruin Your Summer that can fetch them away to warm haunts even as the leaves start to fall.
Sometimes one’s priorities comes into crystal-clear focus, and for Chloe McCorkle, that time has arrived. She knows exactly what she needs to do this summer: She has to—has to—put her nose to the grindstone and earn enough money for a new bike. See, her parents think her neon-pink bicycle is still perfectly fine, but Chloe knows that no self-respecting sixth grader worth her salt would be caught dead riding it. She wants to earn enough cash to buy a sporty mountain bike. Unfortunately, her parents have other plans. Like, vacation plans. To celebrate their fifteenth wedding anniversary. By themselves. Unbeknownst to Chloe, they’ve signed her up for a two-week stint at Camp Minnehaha, a career camp for kids with emphases in athletic, scientific, veterinary, and culinary pursuits. A smart girl could certainly take the skills she’d gleaned from such a getaway and turn them into some road-ready pocket change—right? Chloe isn’t so sure, and she has good reason to be skeptical. Between her and a shiny new set of wheels stands a whole camp’s worth of mosquitoes and spiders; a tea-swilling camp director with a yen for handing out demerits; the cutest guy in sixth grade who always turns her into a bundle of nerves; her own tendency to fall down hills, pratfall into mud puddles, and have her hair explode into a frizzy, static-electricity-charged mop; and a myotonic, escape-artist goat who isn’t afraid to apply his horned head to the backside of unwary campers.
Souders excels at penning broad slapstick, the sort of stuff that gets young readers giggling and keeps them turning pages. Poor Chloe suffers from an inveterate clumsiness that has her, say, inadvertently plunging her foot into a toilet (twice), accidently consuming a cup containing a cocktail of crustaceans (don’t ask), and taking a fully clothed dip in the camp lake while trying to canoe with a caprine passenger (the inspiration for the book’s cover). But Souders also shows a talent for composing more than just silly stuff. Remember how Chekhov famously referred to a firearm while dispensing writing advice? Well, Summer takes his advice to heart. Seemingly innocuous details sprinkled throughout early chapters crop up later on as important plot developments or defining character traits or important themes. Indeed, I was particularly impressed with how the novel humanizes its antagonist, a spoiled girl who’s equal parts mean, manipulative, and moneyed. I won’t spoil anything, but suffice it to say that Souders makes her pitiable rather than demonizing her. As autumn starts to fall, Summer is not only an enjoyable read, but a way for the back-to-school set to escape to more temperate times.
(Picture: Copyright 2016 by Jeanie Murch; used under fair use)