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By A. J. Sass
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Twelve-year-old Abigail (she/her/hers) is so excited to spend her summer at Camp QUILTBAG, an inclusive retreat for queer and trans kids. She can’t wait to find a community where she can be herself—and, she hopes, admit her crush on that one hot older actress to kids who will understand.
Thirteen-year-old Kai (e/em/eir) is not as excited. E just wants to hang out with eir best friend and eir parkour team. And e definitely does not want to think about the incident that left eir arm in a sling—the incident that also made Kai’s parents determined to send em somewhere e can feel like emself.
After a bit of a rocky start at camp, Abigail and Kai make a pact: If Kai helps Abigail make new friends, Abigail will help Kai's cabin with the all-camp competition. But as they navigate a summer full of crushes, queer identity exploration, and more, they learn what's really important. Camp QUILTBAG is a heartfelt story full of the joy that comes from being and loving yourself.
Abigail found the website herself.
It was a very un-Abigail-like thing to do. She'd had a bad day at school (weren't they all bad days ever since Stacy had stopped being her friend?) and came home, traded her school uniform skirt for sweatpants, and did what she always did on bad days: took out her laptop to watch interviews of her celebrity favorites on YouTube.
Mostly Laura Dern. Or Teri Polo. Or some other older actress, usually at least over forty, who was pretty enough to steal Abigail's heart that week. She sort of had a thing for older ladies. It sort of got her into all this trouble in the first place.
She couldn't enjoy the YouTube interviews that day, though. She tried. She pulled up an old Jurassic Park interview, and Laura Dern said something silly, and Abigail blushed at the sound of her laughter, and she'd had such a bad day at school that even just blushing in the privacy of her bedroom was, well, embarrassing.
Really embarrassing. Abigail couldn't explain it, but she felt the tips of her ears get warm, and her shoulders tensed and inched up her neck, and she couldn't enjoy Laura Dern anymore. Not when all the kids at school had been making fun of her for weeks for having stupidly admitted to having a crush on Stacy's mom.
Nice job, Abigail. No one needed to know about that.
But now they all did know. Stacy had stopped inviting Abigail to hang out because she said it was now super weird, and honestly, Abigail didn't blame her. It was super weird.
It was even weirder when Abigail realized that she not only missed hanging out with Stacy, she also missed seeing Stacy's mom.
You're hopeless, Abigail. And now you have no friends.
It was kind of a double-edged sword that summer break was nearly here. Because, Yay, no more school where she could have bad days! But also, Oh no, no friends to make summer plans with. Stacy and the other girls would all go to the beach and the boardwalk without inviting her, and they would post pictures all over social media, and Abigail would not be in a single shot.
That was what Abigail was thinking about when she closed YouTube and pulled up Google and typed, How do I find LGBTQ friends?
That, too, felt kind of embarrassing. Who used Google to find friends? Abigail was definitely hopeless, was definitely alone, and definitely had no real people skills whatsoever.
She was seriously considering asking her mom to send her to a convent or something to escape being such an awkward excuse of a human in such a cruel, cruel world, when she saw it (on the third O page of the Goooooogle results): Camp QUILTBAG.
She clicked the link.
Camp QUILTBAG, according to its website, was a two-week camp for LGBTQ+ youth in Minnesota—which was delightfully far, far away from Abigail's friends (ex-friends?) in New Jersey. The very top of the page had a quote from a former camper that said, "Camp QUILTBAG felt like more than just a summer camp, it felt like coming home." There were pictures of kids in rainbow-colored shirts, smiling, arms around each other. The descriptions said it had activities just like any other camp—obstacle courses, swimming, kayaking, archery—and ones specifically for LGBTQ+ kids—workshops on gender identity and expression, body image and self-esteem, LGBTQ+ history, and drag makeup.
It sounded terrifying. Abigail was just . . . Abigail, and the kids in these pictures were all smiles and dyed hair and cool colorful clothes. The kids in these pictures looked totally out, and totally proud, and probably never got embarrassed.
But it also sounded perfect because those kids probably never got embarrassed and probably were totally out and proud, and maybe Abigail could somehow learn to be, too. Maybe they'd understand her crush on Stacy's mom and Laura Dern and Teri Polo and all the other beautiful women in the world.
So she clicked the More Information link and filled out her mom's email address, and then hit send before she could stop herself.
She had a minor panic attack and major regret immediately afterwards. It wasn't that her parents didn't know, but there was knowing, and there was knowing. There was a difference between Oh, Abigail has crushes on actresses and Abigail wants to go to gay camp.
Not to mention the fact that she wouldn't exactly be able to tell a single soul at school she'd be spending her summer at gay camp, of all things.
Though, in fairness, it wasn't like she had anyone to tell right now, anyway.
But it wasn't like she could take it back now, either. She sped out of her room and down the stairs to where her mom was sitting in the living room, but all she could do was stand there, eyes wide, watching it all unfold, like realizing the Jell-O was wiggling and knowing a T. rex was about to show up but really, how well could you run from it now?
Abigail's mom was basically glued to her cell phone, and Abigail had the pleasure of making it to the room just in time to hear it buzz with the notification of an incoming email. Abigail pressed her lips tightly together, holding her breath.
"Is this something you're interested in?" her mom asked.
"No. Maybe. Yes," Abigail replied.
"It's over two thousand dollars to attend," her mom responded.
Which was a lot of money. Abigail knew that from how intensely she'd studied the website in the first place. But her mom and dad paid for Catholic school every year because they wanted Abigail to have a foundation in faith, or whatever. If they could spend the money on something they wanted, they could spend it on something Abigail needed.
Don't be selfish, Abigail.
"If it's too much, I don't have to . . . ," she said.
"You clearly want to," her mom said. "I don't know that I understand all this, and I'd need to look into this camp a bit more. But if this is important to you, you need to let us know."
Abigail took a deep breath, and in her second very un-Abigail-like move, she admitted, "It's important to me."
Three weeks later, she (fortunately) wasn't packing to be sent away to a convent. She was packing for a long plane ride to Minnesota to spend two weeks at Camp QUILTBAG. She packed her favorite Laura Dern poster and her favorite Jurassic Park shirt. She searched her clothes for something colorful to bring but came up empty. She hoped she'd come home wearing rainbows. She hoped she'd come home feeling out and proud and not even a little bit embarrassed.
Even though, right now, she was still kind of embarrassed. She hadn't told anyone at school where she'd be going this summer. She'd lied and said she was spending the summer at her family's lake house in upstate New York. Stacy, who had been Abigail's best friend basically her entire life, who knew full well that Abigail's family didn't have a lake house—nor did she have any family that lived in upstate New York in general—had stopped giving Abigail the cold shoulder solely to ask her a million questions about it.
Abigail just kept lying.
"Well, I'm sure you'll post a lot of pictures for us to see," Stacy had said.
"Yeah, of course. It's so beautiful there," Abigail had lied.
But she'd worry about the lies later. She hoped it would all sort itself out.
Abigail—as she zipped up her suitcase and headed downstairs, ready for her parents to drive her to the airport—hoped most of all that she'd make at least one friend who would understand her.
Kai stared out the car window from behind the driver's seat, frowning. E studied the skyscrapers of downtown Minneapolis, then the older brick buildings along the outskirts of the city as they traveled north. Here, the homes were newer, more uniform, and looked a lot like the one Kai's family lived in farther south.
In the front of the car, Kai's parents chatted about the weather (humid for this early in June), about some work project eir mom had that was due soon (she was a marketer, whatever that meant), and when they should start looking for the highway exit (in half an hour, give or take, between the 221 and 222 mile markers).
". . . don't you think?" Mom asked.
"Absolutely," Dad replied, his voice superficially bright. "Seems like a sign, if ever there was one."
Kai kept quiet, only half listening as e stared at the trees, homing in on the occasional movement of a bird or squirrel—looking anywhere except the seat to eir right. There, an orientation packet lay open to a glossy spread, featuring grinning kids. It felt like they were mocking em.
Kai jerked at the sound of Mom's voice, and a dull ache prickled down eir shoulder. E shot a quick glare at the sling holding eir arm in place, then looked up. "Sorry, what?"
"Your father and I were just saying how nifty it is that this camp is on Shakopee Lake Road."
Kai could imagine a bare minimum of fifty things niftier than some road in Middle of Nowhere, Minnesota, sharing a name with their hometown. But eir mom was giving em such a hopeful look.
Kai chewed on eir lip. Normally eir younger sister, Lexi, would chatter with eir parents on road trips, but she'd left for swim camp last week. Now it was just Kai and the orientation packet, with all its happy kids and rainbow colors.
A safe space to be yourself!
Kai didn't see why e couldn't just be emself back at home. Instead, eir parents were sending em someplace where e wouldn't know anyone, all because a few kids at school last year had a problem with Kai and eir pronouns.
"It feels like a sign," Dad said again. "Don't you think, Kai?"
Kai knew e was being difficult, that eir parents were just trying to be supportive. But e was fine. E definitely didn't need to attend Camp QUILTBAG to figure out eir identity, because e already knew it. Kai Lindquist: Former gymnast-turned-parkour wizard. Almost-eighth-grader.
Pronouns and identity were only a small part of em. It wasn't Kai's fault that's what everyone focused on.
E slouched in eir seat and let Mom and Dad continue talking. Kai couldn't help wishing e was back in the real Shakopee as they passed mile marker 204. E slipped eir phone out of eir pocket, eyeing the notifications.
Nothing from Cie-Cie, or any of eir old gymnastics teammates, but that wasn't a shocker. They'd all been pretty quiet since The Incident that started this whole "let's send Kai to a camp e doesn't want to be at" business.
There was a group text from Leo, last year's parkour team captain. Loneliness washed over Kai as e read the reminder about next week's practice, plus an upcoming event two weekends from now. Most of eir teammates lived a few towns away from Kai and attended a different school, so practice and events were the only times e got to see them. Kai wouldn't have been able to participate in the event due to eir shoulder, but e still could've gone to the gym and spent time with eir friends between now and then.
E wouldn't know anyone at Camp QUILTBAG, so it felt a lot like e'd be starting from scratch. Kai had already started over when e'd quit gymnastics and e wasn't eager to do it again, now that e'd already found a group of supportive friends.
The second text was from another parkour friend.
The corners of Kai's mouth twitched up.
Eir mom was looking back at em again.
"You promise you'll give this a try? For your dad and me?"
The entire drive, both Mom and Dad had been acting all bright and positive. It reminded Kai of the smiles e used to practice with Cie-Cie before gymnastics meets. E'd eventually gotten so good at looking confident, it was impossible to tell what was real or faked.
Eir mom's and dad's forced expressions were a lot more obvious.
But now, Mom's tone was less upbeat, more pleading. Her brows pinched toward the bridge of her nose and a worry line wrinkled her forehead beneath blond hair that matched Kai's own. As much as this camp felt like a punishment, Kai knew eir parents were just trying to find a "good balance" between letting em do eir own thing and showing they supported em. That's what Kai's therapist kept saying, anyway.
Kai had learned to visualize positive outcomes with eir therapist since coming out last year, but e still couldn't imagine meeting anyone like Aziza at camp. Two weeks just wasn't enough time to build that kind of trust.
It was too late to turn back, though.
Throat tight, Kai nodded. "Plus, you said I could leave early, right? Next Friday instead of Sunday. So I can go to Aziza's parkour event?"
Mom sighed. "We said we'd think about it. Let's see how you settle in at camp first, all right?"
Kai didn't reply.
"We will definitely make a decision before the beginning of the second week," Dad promised. "Try not to worry about it until then. Besides, you might realize you're having so much fun that you'll want to stay through to the end."
Not likely. But Kai stayed quiet as Dad kept talking.
"Just give it a chance. If you really don't want to stay, you can let us know at the end of next weekend and we'll get you early. How's that sound?"
It sounded like Kai and eir parents weren't on the same page—that they were reading completely different books, actually. Still, there was no point in arguing, now that they were almost there.
Mom's worry line disappeared. She sat back in her seat just as they drove past mile marker 220.
"Not long now, pal," Dad said, and Kai's chest clenched a little.
The car slowed after mile 221. Beyond it, another sign came into view.
It said, Shakopee, just like back home. Except not even close, because of the added Lake Road.
"I really do think this will be a great experience," Mom said as Dad turned off the highway and onto a gravel road. "Maybe you'll even meet other parkour fans."
"As long as you don't actually do any parkour," Dad chimed in.
The car bumped along the gravel road, jerking them all against their seatbelts. Kai's shoulder twinged again.
"I get to take this off in like three days though, right?"
"Hopefully," Dad said. "We'll see what the camp nurse thinks."
"And that doesn't mean you'll be able to do all the tricks you used to before those awful boys"—Kai's stomach twisted as Mom paused—"before you got injured."
A wooden arch appeared, painted like a rainbow. Dad drove under it, then parked at the end of a row of cars.
Mom hopped out first and hurried around the car to open the door for Kai.
"My other arm's fine, you know," Kai said. "I can open doors myself."
"I know." Mom smiled. "I just wanted to give you your first goodbye hug."
Kai leaned into her, cheeks hot. Last year, eir face would've been buried in Mom's shoulder, breathing in the perfume she always wore: vanilla lavender. Now, eir chin almost cleared it, giving em a clear view past her.
Kids hopped out of their cars. Some were hugging their parents, just like Kai. A few waved or called to campers they seemed to already know. Others headed out of the parking lot, toward a group of kids and adults who'd formed a line in front of a sign-in table.
Dad patted Kai's back, and eir stomach performed a flip that would've made half eir parkour team jealous. "Ready, pal?"
Kai didn't honestly know. But e'd promised to try, so e forced a smile and nodded as Mom handed over eir suitcase.
Abigail had been at camp for exactly twenty-three minutes before she fell in love. And that, of course, was a problem.
Or maybe it wasn't a problem? Abigail was still unclear on the particulars, but maybe falling in love was okay here, at Camp QUILTBAG, where there were a ton of other kids who maybe also got inappropriate crushes on members of the same sex who were old enough (older, even!) to be their parents. That was why Abigail wanted to come here in the first place.
As they all arrived at the campgrounds, the kids were swiftly shuffled away from their parents and into the large building near the center of camp. It was made of wood like all the other smaller cabins scattered about, but it also looked much sturdier, like the wood was for show and it was actually held together by concrete. Inside, there were rows and rows of tables. Abigail chose one in the back, clutching her suitcase and backpack tightly, using the bulk of both to keep herself mostly hidden.
Her own goodbye with her mom had happened at the airport, and with very little fanfare, which was quite all right with Abigail. Her mom was doing that thing, that capital-s Supportive thing she did, where her smile was much wider than normal and her eyes were kind of bugged out. Though being an unaccompanied minor gave Abigail Jurassic Park–style pterodactyls in her stomach, she was kind of relieved. She had breathed a lot easier once her mom was gone.
The rest of the kids filed into the big building, taking up the empty seats all around her in what, to Abigail, felt like a blur of literal rainbows. She reached into her pocket to pull out the brochure the camp had sent after her parents had signed her up for it. The one that had all the rules and all the information necessary to survive the two weeks at camp. Abigail had it memorized.
She would still pay perfectly rapt attention during this orientation, though, just in case something changed, or if there was more to learn, or for anything new that didn't fit into a four-page brochure. Abigail knew that right after this, they would be separated into their cabins—which made the pterodactyls in her stomach fly around like crazy. Until then, she would focus on the familiar. She would focus on orientation, and on the camp leader whom she had yet to meet. The rest would sort itself out. Hopefully.
She wasn't really sure why there was so much art of white squirrels along the walls, though. A bunch of finger paintings, with the fingers all bunched together to make it look like a big squirrel tail. Collages of a bunch of photos of white items—milk jugs and clouds and sneakers—ripped up and pasted together to look like a giant squirrel, too. There definitely wasn't anything on the website about squirrels, and she didn't think a squirrel was a gay symbol. She was pretty sure, anyway. Though, wait, what if it was?
Abigail just had to cross her fingers that she'd understand the squirrels soon enough.
The kid sitting beside Abigail was practically vibrating. "Oh, tell us which cabins we're in already! I really want a good color. I want a shirt that brings out my eyes," the other camper said. It took Abigail a couple of seconds of weird silence before she realized the camper was talking to her. Abigail turned to look fully at the kid next to her. She (They? Abigail paused; she shouldn't assume anything about anyone here, and she needed to remember that) had brown skin, was dressed in feminine clothes, and had long, long hair. They were leaning against the table, close to Abigail, though they weren't looking at her, so Abigail wasn't sure if they were talking to her or not. "My first year here I wrote like three emails expressing my concern that they'd have the cabins separated by gender. Don't worry, if you're new. They don't. I'm Juliana, by the way."
So they were talking to her.
Abigail actually had been worried about the cabins. Mostly because some of her friends—her girl friends—didn't want her at sleepovers anymore. The thought still made her neck feel super warm, a blush spreading up into her cheeks. She didn't think kids at an LGBTQ+ camp would be as cruel, but it worried her anyway, so she researched. A lot. "I know. It's part of the camp's mission statement. My parents had to sign a form saying it was okay when they signed me up."
Juliana blinked at her for a moment, before immediately dropping her gaze.
Abigail blushed. Again.
Nice job, doofus.
"I've read the mission statement, too, of course." Juliana shrugged. "I've combed through a lot of their so-called mission statements, actually. I've been trying to get them to change the name of the camp, because—"
Juliana didn't get to finish their thought. As quickly as their conversation started, it stopped, as a tall woman stepped up to the podium in the very front of the room.
Twenty-three minutes after Abigail had arrived.
"Okay, everyone, settle down!" The woman's voice was stern enough that everyone did settle down, but she was smiling so big and wide (all teeth and dimples) that there was a kind sound mixed in with it, too. Almost like laughter, even though she wasn't laughing. She was Black, and had sharp cheekbones and big dark eyes. Her hair was extra curly and long, surrounding her head like a cloud. She wore one of the Camp QUILTBAG T-shirts that some of the older teens (counselors, probably) had on—white, with the camp name surrounded by a big bright rainbow over a tent and campfire. It was partially tucked into skinny jeans, and she wore a big brown belt with a buckle that caught the light of the fluorescents that spanned the ceiling.
"My name is Lena, my pronouns are she/her, and I'm in charge here at Camp QUILTBAG," she said, and seemed to look directly at Abigail, even though she was all the way in the back and Lena probably couldn't see her anyway. Still, it made Abigail smile, and bite her lip, and want to die.
"I'm so happy you're all here," Lena said.
Abigail, heartbeat in her throat, was so, so happy, too.
It was a good thing Abigail had the rules and regulations and all the information she could possibly get her hands on fully memorized beforehand because, well, she barely processed anything Lena had said.
She almost missed her name being called by one of the counselors as they divided the camp into age levels and cabins. Camp QUILTBAG, in an attempt to be funny—and, honestly, Abigail did enjoy a good pun—had separated the camp into three age groups:
Knitters: the little kids, ages six to eight;
Weavers: the middle ones, nine to eleven; and
Crocheters: Abigail's age group, the twelve- to fourteen-year-olds.
Each age group was then separated into cabins, and each cabin was designated by, of course, a color of the rainbow.
Abigail was a Yellow Crocheter.
Suddenly, they were all being funneled back out of the main building, and Abigail wasn't ready to leave. Juliana, the only person Abigail had spoken to—not that it made them friends, exactly, but at least it was something—was shuffled into the Purple Crocheters cabin, and Lena was still up at the podium, and Abigail really, really didn't want to leave.
The pterodactyls came back, and Abigail could only hope that she would see Lena again come dinner.
She found the Yellow cabin pretty easily. Besides the pride flag, which all the cabins hung—the one with the black and brown stripes as well as the trans flag colors—it was draped in yellow flags, too. The only relief in getting to the cabin was that she could finally put down her suitcase and backpack, which was starting to hurt her shoulders. She took a deep breath as she approached the counselor standing at the front of the Yellow cabin door.
"Hi!" the counselor said. He was wearing the same Camp QUILTBAG shirt as Lena, except his was yellow. "I'm MJ!" He pointed to the name tag he was wearing, which did indeed say, MJ: he/him. "I'm the counselor for Yellow, here. Are you one of mine? What's your name, sweets?"
- Praise for Nicole Melleby:
- "This emotional read shows the power of friendship and family without omitting the work that goes into loving someone."—Booklist, starred review (The Science of Being Angry)
- "A strong recommendation for readers who enjoy contemplative, character-driven stories like those by Ashley Herring Blake."—School Library Journal, starred review (The Science of Being Angry)
- "Sprinkled with astronomy-related metaphors related to a planet’s properties, this acutely observed, authentically told tale by Melleby thoughtfully portrays Pluto’s relationship with her worried single mother, the girl’s urgent desire to 'be fixed,' and her intense—and at times overpowering—depressive episodes."—Publishers Weekly, starred review (How to Become a Planet)
- "A raw yet honest portrayal of a young person’s experience with depression, this is a must-read for both middle grade readers and the teachers, counselors, parents, and other adults who interact daily with youth undergoing similar experiences."—School Library Journal, starred review (How to Become a Planet)
- "This funny, tender, and heart-wrenching story will have readers calling for an encore."—Kirkus Review, starred review (In the Role of Brie Hutchens. . .)
- "Melleby paints Brie as a recognizable teen. . . Wrenching and genuine."—Publishers Weekly, starred review (In the Role of Brie Hutchens. . .)
- "Melleby deftly tackles weighty topics—mental illness, child protective services, single parenting, sexuality—while effortlessly weaving in elements of the life and works of Vincent van Gogh, creating a thoughtful, age-appropriate and impressive novel."—Shelf Awareness, starred review (Hurricane Season)
- "Melleby’s debut offers a tender, earnest portrait of a daughter searching for constancy while negotiating her father’s sickness and the social challenges of tween girlhood, including her first crush on a girl."—Publishers Weekly, starred review (Hurricane Season)
- "Fig’s story will engage middle grade readers who enjoy thoughtful novels that address complex topics."—School Library Journal, starred review (Hurricane Season)
- Praise for A. J. Sass:
- "Sass’ sophomore novel shines in its nuanced characterizations, subversion of stereotypes, and world that celebrates autism for the joy it brings Ellen when they are happily flapping. A tender, sweet coming-of-age story."—Booklist, starred review (Ellen Outside the Lines)
- "[T]houghtfully deals with gender identity and fluidity at various levels. A heartwarming and inviting book. Recommended for all middle grade shelves."—School Library Journal, starred review (Ellen Outside the Lines)
- "Sass masterfully balances Ana's passion for competitive figure skating with her journey to coming out....Sensitive and realistic."—Booklist, starred review (Ana on the Edge)
- On Sale
- May 30, 2023
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Algonquin Young Readers