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The Junior Cabin

Bruce Coffey, Jr.

“I was just walking by, when I heard them reading…” 

My son recently returned from summer camp in the Pacific Northwest. He regaled us with tales of horseback riding and pickleball and dock adventures. He told us of Trash Pick-Up Day and special ribs made by the Camp Director. He told stories of tent mates and cousins and conversations with counselors. On the ride home from the airport, as usual, there were lots of songs kindled by his memory of this place or that person or that night. But my favorite anecdote was unexpected. 

As told by my 12-year-old son… 

A boy walks through the woods in the daytime.

“So one night I was walking back from the main lodge. My tent is way out on the end of the point. As I was walking back, I passed by one of the junior boys’ tents. I remember what it was like to be a junior camper. As I got closer, I could hear they were listening to a story. Their counselor was reading to them and they were all rapt. Quiet. Listening. And then I realized I recognized what they were reading, The Lightning Thief, the first book in the Percy Jackson series, by Rick Riordan. 

I kept walking to get to my tent, but I could feel a warm glow come over me as I walked back. I remembered what it was like to be a junior camper safe in your tent. I remembered how nice it is to be sharing a story together, something you stop doing as you get older. And I remember my own sister reading Percy Jackson to me because she loved it so much. That’s a lot of ways to get that warm feeling, and I knew you’d appreciate it, too, Pop.” 

You’re darn right!  It’s what I live and breathe for. 

And since Read Aloud to a Child Week falls at the end of this month (October 23rd – 29th), it offers a good reason to stop and unpack his memory. So what is it that’s so special about that memory? 

Consider the book. 

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Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians has been a crowd pleaser, among boys and girls, since 2005. A generation of student readers have loved these books. Just in case you don’t know, young Percy discovers he’s the son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the Seas, and while the five book series is an engaging, modern adventure, it also manages to celebrate and teach the characters, principles, and lore of Greek mythology. What a boon to have written a series that parents, teachers, and kids all love! 

In my experience, these books are usually read alone. What might it be like to be an eight-year-old camper, likely not yet to have met or spent time with Percy Jackson, to be introduced to that world and these characters and all that lore at the hands of the cool counselor you played kickball with, amongst your tuckered out cabin mates all seeking your next great adventure?  Let’s just contemplate that. 

Consider the setting. 

Kids don’t come to camp to read. Some kids relish the occasional opportunity and quiet time to read, but those kids are like that at home, too. Most kids spend each day in a never ending quest for ‘what can be the most fun next?’  They expend a ton of energy every day. For the counselor, of course, reading together can provide the perfect opportunity to have the youngsters settle down, and let the fatigue of the day do its natural work. But if they are quiet, and they are engrossed, it lets him also give them a special reward. “I’m going to let you stay up an extra 15 minutes if you want to hear what happens next before I turn out the light.” Many reading parents are happily familiar with this feeling. You know what you’re doing is working, when they ask for more. How much more special to experience that feeling at camp and begin to look forward to going to bed so you can find out what adventure lurks around the corner for Percy. You might even help get your peers to stop dilly-dallying and get ready for lights out that much quicker. Your counselor might even extend you an extra chapter tonight, too! Yes! 

Consider the audience. 

Kids go to camp for the next adventure. They want everything to be fun, to be a blast, to be as good as or better than the day before. If the counselor asks at breakfast, or lunch, “Hey, you want to read a book together?” the answer most certainly is, “No!” That’s not what you go to camp for, not how you imagine you’ll spend your time together. But when it’s bedtime, all campers know the light on today’s fun is about to be doused. What might extend it? Reading a book together? Really? Maybe. “OK, I’ll give it a chance.” Opportunity beckons, and if the story is electric, and the reader has energy and gumption, then a new kind of fun, a new way to share something, a new bond, a new memory is created. And that is magic. The best camp memories are often extemporaneous and unexpected. If a nine-year old comes home from camp and says one of his best memories was reading Percy Jackson each night together… well that gives us reading aloud advocates another moment to be grateful for. All in a night’s work. 

Consider that vicarious passerby.  

He’d already been read to. Just about outgrowing it now. Has he moved on? Maybe. You might have thought so. But Percy Jackson, and camp, brought him back. Every kid eager to grow up knows what it’s like to pine for a moment, time, or experience when you were younger. Growing up is an ongoing push-me-pull-you of wanting to be 18 and wanting to be six again. My son remembered what it meant to be a junior camper, fondly. He remembered what it was to be read to, a whole book, a whole series that you wanted more of. He remembered sharing that with his much older sister, how special that connection made the story. And he remembered Percy Jackson. That all happened at camp, on his own. 

Consider the connections. 

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Let’s celebrate the sense of connection this little anecdote reveals. The counselor forged a new connection with his campers thanks to his selection. He cast a spell they all shared (with a lot of help from Rick Riordan), one they’ll all remember and thank him for. We can, too. The campers formed connections with each other, a shared story that they all can refer back to. Perhaps they’ll trade tales of the sequels next year. The campers forged a connection with Percy Jackson and the Greeks, who are now in their heads and their hearts, inspirations and reference points for whatever they read next. Some campers might even have had new connections established for them, if their siblings (and one day their parents) are Percy Jackson fans, too. They’ve all formed a connection with author Rick Riordan. His exciting, creative package – a book – established a bond they all share. Many of them will go on to read more Rick Riordan on their own. Some will become more expert on the Greeks, seeking out the d’Aulaires on Greek mythology, or perhaps even digging out their grandmother’s Edith Hamilton. And some will read stories with their own children – or when they become camp counselors, themselves. 

That’s how the culture of reading aloud, sharing a story together, gets passed down. I am so glad my son recognizes it fondly and it gives him that warm glow. His memory keeps my own glow well fueled and well lit. 

During Read Aloud to a Child Week, we hope you find a child, or an adult, or even a shared group to read with together. And we certainly invite you to share your own treasured anecdote about the magic power of reading aloud – together. 

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