The Camping Trip

“People in cities don’t understand / falling in love with the land.” So goes a line from one of my favorite Girl Scout songs, “Moon on the Meadow.” Jennifer K. Mann’s picture book The Camping Trip takes protagonist and narrator Ernestine from being one of those “people in cities” to getting her first taste of camping in the woods and enjoying it so much that she’s ready to bring her closest relative into the exhilaration and fun of camping.

Ernestine’s aunt and cousin have invited her to go tent-camping in the woods for the first time, and although Dad doesn’t plan to come along, he helps her gather everything she needs for the trip (and that’s a lot!): a sleeping bag, backpack, clothes, swim gear, a flashlight, sunscreen, a camera, comic books, snacks, and more. When Aunt Jackie and cousin Samantha arrive, Ernestine looks wistfully at her dad waving good-bye and hopes that “Dad doesn’t miss me too much.” Mann’s highly textured, multimedia collage illustrations include fine pen lines, colorful paint, photographic snippets, fabric swatches, and more. She employs full-page spreads that emphasize the beauty and expansiveness of the land as well as comic-styled frames that show Ernestine’s process of becoming increasingly more comfortable in this wooded setting. Notably, Samantha delights in sharing her love of the outdoors with her cousin and seems undaunted by Ernestine’s fears and challenges that keep her from enjoying the experience fully at first. Some things come as a surprise to Ernestine. She’s looking forward to swimming since she swims in the pool at the Y at home — but fish swim around in this water! And she walks to school every day, so she figures hiking must be the same — right? But “there are a lot more hills here than on my way to school.” As Ernestine realizes she has “brought too much stuff” on the hike, she stands on the steep incline, looking directly at the reader, head tilted sideways, as if to say, “What was I thinking?” At least eating all her snacks at the top lightens the load for the trip back.

Samantha and Ernestine spend the afternoon exploring woods that are teeming with wildlife — banana slugs, woodpeckers, deer—and trees so big that not even the three of them can circle one with joined hands. At dinnertime, the girls build the fire and Ernestine gets yet another introduction to something unfamiliar: a vegan meal of tofu hot dogs and broccoli salad. She is surprised to find that she likes it! But dinner pales in comparison to the quintessential camping treat: s’mores. She again looks directly at the reader with a marshmallow-and-chocolate-smeared smile that says it all.

If this intimate, first-person narrative of a little girl’s trip thus far hasn’t endeared the reader to Ernestine, the story of her first night sleeping in the woods will. This night begins with a left-page image of the trio sitting around a fire, surrounded by the deep forest. We see only the essence of trees, which Mann illustrates with thin, straight lines for trunks and scribbles for leaves. The fire emits a yellow light that illuminates the faces and bodies of Ernestine, Samantha, and Aunt Jackie, who all seem mesmerized by the glow. This image will resonate with anyone who has sat around a campfire as dusk turns to dark and the sounds of the night emerge.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of The Camping Trip]

After crawling into the tent for bedtime, all goes well . . . until Aunt Jackie turns the lantern out. “Two seconds later, Aunt Jackie and Samantha are snoring. But I can’t sleep.” Readers get nine hilarious frames of what “can’t sleep” looks like for Ernestine: flipping and flopping in her sleeping bag; so hot socks have to come off; she needs water, then Foxy, her stuffed animal; she’s freezing. Her thoughts turn to Dad. She wakes her aunt so they can call him, which Aunt Jackie does willingly, but of course cell reception isn’t a given this far from civilization. When Ernestine realizes she can’t talk to him, readers get yet another direct visual address before Ernestine bursts into tears, crying, “I want to go home.” On the calling-home page, Mann creates two side-by-side panels at the top and bottom of the page: the top two illustrate only Aunt Jackie and Ernestine as she comes to terms with her homesickness; the bottom two show her emotional meltdown. The middle panel, which runs the width of the page, shows the three of them as Samantha and Aunt Jackie sit on either side of Ernestine, facing and tenderly supporting her. The right page, with three very dark frames, each spanning the width of the page, comes as the best answer possible to homesickness: they emerge from the lighted tent into the blue-black night in the top frame, walk silently hand-in-hand through the woods in the middle frame, and in the bottom frame, Samantha tells her cousin, while holding her hand, “Don’t be scared, Ernestine.” When they reach Aunt Jackie’s destination, a double-page spread unfolds, revealing a breathtaking scene: a midnight-blue lake with stars spangling both the night sky and the water. Tree trunks frame the scene, and between them are only the silhouettes of the trio, hands still joined, facing the lake and marveling at the scene before them. A shooting star prompts Aunt Jackie to tell the girls to make a wish. Not surprisingly, this scene constitutes a turning point for Ernestine, who is now content, tired out, and ready for sleep.

The brightness of the denouement pages contrasts with the nocturnal scenes both visually and metaphorically. The breakfast pancakes are the best she’s ever had (because everything tastes better in the woods), and swimming in the lake is delightful rather than scary: “The fish don’t bite me once,” Ernestine marvels. After they pack the car for the trip home, the girls visit the lake once more and look forward to returning next year. This third and final glimpse of the lake with the mountains in the background serves as a motif that reflects Ernestine’s growing appreciation of this natural landscape. Notably, Mann has created the mountains with collages of recycled printed papers on which the small type runs vertically, creating depth, layers, and reflections on the water that invite readers to look again and again.

The girls entertain each other and sleep on the uneventful ride home, and the joy is mutual when Ernestine reunites with her dad. She says, peering directly at the reader again while hugging her dad, who has squatted down to her height to embrace her: “I think Dad missed me.” Apparently, he did. Outdoor lovers might find themselves tearful upon reading the last page when Ernestine looks up at her tall, thin dad and asks him, “Dad, have you ever tried s’mores?”

If this were a story about a white child’s camping experience, it would be a great story, and one among many. But it’s not. This story features a brown-skinned Black child and her family. And even though this is not an #OwnVoices story, Mann tells a marvelous personal tale that rarely gets told—that of a Black family having an immersive positive outdoor experience and living to come home to tell about it, and a Black child enjoying it so much that she wants to go back. This story should not be an anomaly in 2020, but it is—perhaps because it’s hard for African Americans to find peace in nature without racism encroaching on their quietude. Perhaps it’s because most white writers have seen so few Black families camping that it feels more like fantasy than reality to tell stories like The Camping Trip. But as a third-generation Girl Scout who is raising a fourth-generation Girl Scout, I, for one, am delighted to see this story between covers, whispering not just of what can be, but what is. Thank you, Jennifer Mann.

 

 

Dr. Michelle H. Martin
Dr. Michelle H. Martin
Dr. Michelle H. Martin is the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children & Youth Services in the Information School at the University of Washington in Seattle.
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Allison Khoury

Thank you! This is an excellent review. This is one of my favorite books of the year. My students loved this book when I read it to a range of grades and ages. Some students have never been camping and I would see (even on a screen) how they were connecting. Your review of the illustrations had me running for my copy to study the illustrations again realizing I missed things. I am smitten by the night scene at the lake - stars reflected in the calm lake. So beautiful. I'm secretly hoping for a sequel.

Posted : Oct 26, 2020 11:27


Julie Danielson

Thanks for this post, Michelle. I have always appreciated the ways in which Mann’s books possess such respect for the inner lives of children, and she captures domestic dramas so well. I think this book is no exception.

Posted : Oct 25, 2020 06:19


Jennifer Mann

Thank YOU, Dr Martin. I am so honored by your warm appreciation for The Camping Trip!

Posted : Oct 21, 2020 04:22


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