MMGM and #IMWAYR: Long Distance by Whitney Gardner
First of all, I have a fun announcement: As of Sunday...
Completely Full Bookshelf is 6 years old!!!
It's hard to believe I've been blogging for this long, but it's true! And it's all thanks to the two wonderful book blogging communities I participate in, MMGM and #IMWAYR, whose wonderful hosts and participants keep me coming back again and again to discover new books and rant about the ones I've read too! Here's to another year of rambling reviews!
Speaking of rambling reviews, I have one today, this time of a fantastic MG graphic novel I've been waiting to read for a while. And I'm glad I fit it in, because I did not realize I haven't read an MG book at all since Go with the Flow...in April!
Today's review is of Long Distance by Whitney Gardner.
(A note before we dive in: I'm calling many of the characters in this book nerds, and I'm including a disclaimer here that I mean that in the nicest possible way—I myself am very much a nerd, and I own it!)
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Let's start off with the publisher's description of the book:
A middle grade graphic novel about friendships both near and far, far away.
Vega’s summer vacation is not going well.
When her parents decide it’s time to pack up and leave her hometown of Portland, Oregon, behind for boring Seattle, Washington, Vega is more than upset—she’s downright miserable. Forced to leave her one and only best friend, Halley, behind, Vega is convinced she’ll never make another friend again.
To help her settle into her new life in Seattle, her parents send Vega off to summer camp to make new friends. Except Vega is determined to get her old life back. But when her cellphone unexpectedly calls it quits and things at camp start getting stranger and stranger, Vega has no choice but to team up with her bunkmates to figure out what’s going on!
So apparently I've been meaning to read this book for a year, which is longer than I thought—but at least I can bring this book back to your attention in case you forgot about it! Back when it was making the rounds across the blogosphere, I saw reviews by Laura Mossa at Beagles and Books, Michele Knott at Mrs. Knott's Book Nook, and Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsberg at Unleashing Readers that got me intrigued. But even all that praise did not prepare me for how utterly fantastic and delightful this story would be—I read the whole thing in a night, and then I basically reread it just now trying to gather my thoughts for this review!
It's hard to sum up this book because there is just so much going on, so I think it's helpful to quickly frame the story. Basically, this book is "An absolutely amazing introverted astronomy nerd [Vega, our protagonist] deals with a friendship crisis and gets shipped off to a bizarre summer camp for introverted kids, where she meets other amazing introverted nerds and teams up with them to figure out the deal with this crazy camp—and they all just might learn that making and keeping friends is easier than they think."
Let's break that down a little, starting with the characters. Vega and the kids she meets (Qwerty, Gemma, and Isaac) are such absolutely delightful characters, you can't help but root for them in every conceivable way. I love that each one of them has their own unique interest—astronomy, computers, geology, you name it. As someone who is still a computer nerd and was once kind of an astronomy nerd like Vega (if you're curious, I was mainly obsessed with space probes and rovers), I was so thrilled to see these kinds of kids on the page—and I love the occasional asides explaining different aspects of their interests in a scientific way.
I also love just how sweet and wonderful all these kids are—as someone who seems to be progressively losing faith in a good 65% of the world population, I always do love finding these energetic MG graphic novels filled with delightful kids who you just know will make the world a better place. Even as Vega struggles under the weight of her friendship fears and newfound loneliness, she still finds it in her to be open around the other kids at camp and to bring compassion and determination to the situation when necessary. And the other kids are so wonderful too—I particularly loved the overly talkative yet endearing computer nerd Qwerty, who gets tons of development and "screen time" in the story too!
And it's good that Vega finds some other wonderful kids at camp, because the camp is...well, it's a wild ride, y'all. The camp brochure at the beginning of the story already seems a bit off, but the real first sign of weirdness is the camp counselors, who bring an irritating yet hilarious mixture of toxic positivity and bizarre behavior and speech. (I realized the voice I was hearing their lines in within my head was the voice of Kristen Wiig's character Target Lady from SNL, if that gives you any context.) And there's also a fellow camper, George, who seems to be everywhere, and who somehow always finds new and creative ways to be "cool," and clingy, and obnoxious all at once. But it's not just the camp counselors and George—as Vega and her fellow campers discover over the course of the story, there's a whole lot of things about the camp that are not right, and maybe even a bit...spooky. Thankfully, this book isn't terrifying or anything like that—but it's definitely foreboding, and for good reason.
And I have to say, we eventually find out what's going on—AND IT IS THE MOST BRILLIANT REVEAL OMG!!!!! Like, wow—as an older reader, I usually can guess most of what will happen in MG books, but this was so out of left field and yet completely foreshadowed and logical (but in a crazy way) that I didn't predict it at all and yet was still totally satisfied and thrilled when it happened. (OK, I actually predicted about half of it, but I wasn't even certain of my prediction, and the other half didn't occur to me at all.) Seriously, if the compelling characters and meaningful themes I'm about to discuss don't get you to read this book, then just read it for the crazy twist and all that ensues after—especially since everything that ensues afterward actually ties back into the core themes of the book in a zany yet meaningful way, rather than just being a weird detour.
So let's talk about those themes I was mentioning! First of all, I love the exploration in this book of trying to maintain friendships "long distance." I really did not have much of a social life before college, and when I started college, we were having an eensy-weensy global pandemic that kind of sent everything off the rails. So I spent about a year trying to make friends completely virtually—I "met" one of my closest friends virtually early in 2021, and I didn't meet her in-person until late in the summer. The reason I bring all that up is that I think this book does a really compelling job of showing the challenges that come with trying to be friends with someone via texting and video chat, but also showing that it is possible, even if it takes a whole lot of extra work and planning. Particularly nowadays, it's a really relevant theme to see in a book!
And in general, this book has a really keen sense of what it's like to be an introverted or lonely kid, and there is so much painfully relatable detail packed into these kids' experience at this camp supposedly aimed at them. There is a moment when we see one character's history of basically playing with imaginary friends because they didn't have real ones, and it hit me SO HARD—it immediately made me remember the time in 3rd grade when my teacher noticed me playing rock-paper-scissors...with myself. (Childhood is kind of a nightmare!) I also totally related to Vega's tendency to catastrophize about her friendship with Halley—like, on one hand, Vega kind of decided her whole friendship had died after Halley didn't respond to her for about a day. But on the other hand, when I don't hear back from my friends, I do kind of get on board the Insane Train and have the same panic that they don't like me anymore, or they never liked me as much as I liked them, or I'm being too pushy, or this, or that... You get the idea. (Just for the record, I'm not saying any of this for sympathy—I'm saying it partially because it exemplifies how realistic this book is, and partially because this is my blog and I get to rant here!) One other thing I loved so much is Vega's struggle to come up with a "fun fact" during a group introduction at camp—I don't think we realize that fun facts basically ask someone to distill their entire messed-up sense of self into a single sentence on the spot for a giant audience. It's kind of not the most fun for people like me! (I'll be constructive for a moment—if you ever need an icebreaker, a question like "What's a song you've been enjoying lately?" can be less challenging to answer but can also still bring people with shared interests together!)
And now for a speed round of random thoughts on Long Distance! I really appreciate the amount of diversity quietly packed into this story—all of the main characters in this story are people of color (and Vega is biracial), and we also get some LGBTQ+ representation via Vega's two dads. I also love this story's sense of humor—it's rare to find a story as thoughtful as this one that is also as off-the-wall and hilarious as this one, so I appreciate that combination. Whitney Gardner also writes the ending of this story with a ridiculous amount of skill—unlike some other graphic novels, she manages to tie up every single plot thread and not leave anything loose or unresolved, which is ridiculously satisfying for the reader! I did have two teeny-tiny complaints that by no means make this book not worth reading: One is that there is a component of the ending that is utterly delightful but a bit idealistic, so it might be worth discussing that element with your audience if you share this book with anyone. And the other is that Vega has some rude thoughts about Qwerty's talkative nature early in the story that she later overcomes, but she doesn't really reckon with them—I would have liked a more explicit moment of her realizing she was wrong (we get that in the story in general, just not with Vega's more minor mistakes). But I will end the speed round with one final plus: The artwork in this story is delightful, with easily distinguishable characters and a full-color style that is clear yet energetic! Kids will enjoy the rollicking pace, and adults will enjoy being able to tell what's actually going on. (And kids will too, for that matter.)
I still can't believe I took this long to read Long Distance! I had a feeling it would be a good book, but I had no idea it would be this relatable, thoughtful, hilarious, or mind-blowing. This book brings delightful characters, a crazy setting full of twists and turns, and some meaningful themes about friendship and introversion to the table, and I hope you all get a chance to try it and see just how irresistible this story is!
(P.S. I had no idea that Whitney Gardner, the author-illustrator of this book and illustrator of the graphic nonfiction book Becoming RBG, is also the author of several regular novels, including the Schneider-winning YA novel You're Welcome, Universe, which I actually used to own a copy of but never read!)
My rating is: Really good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 4!