When I saw the title for the book I assumed I would be reading the story of a girl from a military family. But that is not what Camo Girl is. The camouflage in this book is both the pigment condition Ella has which causes her to have differently-pigmented shades of skin on her face AND the idea of being hidden from sight in a deeper way from the inside out. How do we hide from the reality in our lives that hurt or seem to hard to look at?
Ella is in middle school and has resigned herself to being alone. She is the only black/multiracial girl in her school. She is often made fun of because her skin is mottled, causing it to have patches of skin that are different shades of brown on her face. She is friends with ‘Z,’ a classmate lost in a fantasy world in order to navigate his own struggle with abandonment. She feels obligated to protect him from the bullying they both endure often by their peers.
Ella is surprised and a little excited when the new student–Bailey–turns out to be black as well. She thinks finally! she may have someone to whom she can relate, with whom she might be friends an a way that brings the sense of belonging she’s missing. And, as is the case so often, Ella finds herself struggling to figure out how to move toward friendship with Bailey without deserting Z.
Ella speaks for so many of us, young and old, who search for the place, the people in life with whom we belong. It requires insight and experience and a willingness to see ourselves as we truly are. Ella shows the reader through her own thoughts, feelings and actions what it is like to feel a part of something, someone, then lose that and have to redefine what it means to “belong” and search for it again.
Camo Girl has some brilliant and tender moments. Its overall pace, however, moves along in starts and stops like an engine that keeps sputtering. For me, the final conflict felt forced which then takes away from the impact the story can leave on the reader. Ultimately unsatisfying for me from a story and character perspective, Camo Girl has enough extraordinarily well-crafted moments in Ella’s voice that it is still worth the read. I can see some young readers–particularly girls–enjoying the story and buying into the ending more than I did as an adult. Those are the readers to whom I would suggest Camo Girl as a Lovelace nominee choice (a group that I am pretty sure will include my 11-year-old, 6th Grade daughter).