Ella is trying to live her life as inconspicuously as possible. She is tormented at school by the in-crowd boys in her sixth grade class, particularly by bully Jonathan Hoffman. Because Ella has a skin condition that gives her face an uneven, mottled appearance–something like the camouflage clothing worn in their desert town–Jonathan calls her Camo-Face. Outcast Ella and “reality challenged” Zachariah (or Z, as Ella calls him) have a tight cocoon of friendship that keeps them safe. Z’s world is full of knights and damsels in distress; he calls Ella Ellie-nor and milady, and he is willing to face all sorts of problems and difficulties, as long as he can deal with them through the lens of his imaginary world. Ella willingly exists in this world with Z because the real world of school, a former best friend who now sits at the popular table at lunch, and bullies is frankly just not a whole lot of fun. Ella longs to be invisible.
Enter Bailey James. Bailey is the new kid at school, black like Ella, but without all her hang-ups and issues, or so it seems. Bailey is athletic and friendly, a combination that wins him quick admission to the in-crowd. However, Bailey is different, too. He won’t let Ella be invisible. He even stands up for her in the face of Jonathan Hoffman, all the while maintaining his cool kid persona. And so Ella faces a choice: hang with Bailey, thereby effectively abandoning Z; or say “no, thanks” to Bailey’s offer of friendship, effectively closing the door to ever breaking out of her isolation from everyone who’s “normal.”
This is an excellent middle grade novel that deals with common middle school issues without being preachy or too obvious. The treatment Ella and Z receive at school is unfortunately very realistially portrayed, and Kekla Magoon manages to shed even more light on the subject by portraying Ella as a sensitive and smart girl who intuitively knows how to protect herself the only way she can, right or wrong: by hiding in plain sight. Of course, this story is complicated by other issues: Z’s increasing lack of ability to cope with his problematic reality; Bailey’s own problems, which he also hides; Ella’s loss over her father’s death. With dual themes of friendship and coming to grips with who you are, Camo Girl is a story that will ring true for many upper elementary (and older) children.
I give Camo Girl a Highly, Highly Recommended with just a few slight caveats about which conservative readers might want to know. First, there is a budding romance between Ella and Bailey, which most anyone with knowledge of middle schoolers can see coming. I tend to relegate any book that contains romance to the confines of YA, but that’s not realistic. Instead, I’ll just recommend that this one is for older middle-graders. There’s nothing explicit; Ella realizes an awareness of her body while in Bailey’s presence and toward the end of the book they kiss. There is also an instance of slang being used once or twice. Christian readers might want to know that Ella and her mom visit different places of worship after the death of Ella’s dad, with the belief that if attendance at one service good, going to several must be even better. However, even with all these slight caveats, I still think that Camo Girl is a deftly written novel that explores sensitive issues with finesse, and it will provide plenty of excellent conversation fodder for any adult and child who tackle it together. (Aladdin, 2011)
Camo Girl has been nominated for a Cybils Award in the middle grade fiction category.