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That Was Then This Is Now: There’s a Bat in Bunk Five

Here I go again, rereading a favorite book from my teen years and seeing how it holds up. This time I’m going to reread Paula Danziger’s There’s a Bat in Bunk Five. The copyright date on my yellowed paperback (which cost a mere $2.25!) is 1980, so it’s over 30 years old, but I swear I still think of this as something kids read. I kind of doubt that’s true, though.

In case you aren’t familiar with it, it’s the sequel to the classic The Cat Ate My Gymsuit (“gymsuit”–that dates the book right there.). Before I start reading, here’s what I remember: the protagonist, newly pleased with her body which is much less plump than it had been in The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, spends a summer being a camp counselor at a sleepaway camp. There she has classic summer camp experiences, including a romance. Surprisingly I don’t remember a lot of details, but the thing that stands out the most to me is that on their days off they could go into town. As a young middle schooler reading this it seemed so mature to me that the teenage girl and her swell boyfriend could saunter around the hippie town (Woodstock?) buying things and being on their own. That seems like a strange thing for me to remember, but overall I remember thinking that being a camp counselor was the coolest thing in the world…

Okay, I’ve finished reading it (in no time at all–this is a pretty short book) and I can see why I thought being a camp counselor was so great. The action picks up about a year after the end of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit. Main character Marcy is now thin, and her family has undergone family therapy (which has proven so effective that her mother no longer takes tranquilizers!). However her father is still, well, horrible. How could I have forgotten her horrid dad? He makes rude comments about her weight, puts her mother down, and basically their family dynamic is not a good one. Marcy is therefore thrilled that Ms. Finney, the First Amendment-challenging English teacher from the first book, has invited her to be a counselor-in-training (CIT) at her creative arts camp.  Marcy is excited to see her revered teacher, to be in an atmosphere supportive of the arts, and also very excited about the summer of independence. Over the summer Marcy learns to stop putting people on pedestals, be more confident, and has a sweet first romance.

The big selling point of this book back in the day was that it was a “funny book.” I did think it was still funny, though not especially uproarious. What really struck me was how young the book is. Marcy is 14, and while she does have a romance with “hugging and kissing,” her feelings about herself, her relationships, and others are at once immature, and also way too self-aware for 14. The conversations that everyone has with each other are what 11- or 12-year-old me would imagine the way mature people would speak to each other. Ms. Finney is the perfect adult–having activities that promote getting to know each other and being open about your feelings, role playing, and so on. Also, the romance was perfect for 12-year-old me: Ted is cute and talked to me! Oh my gosh–I’m in love with him! There was not much depth to it at all.

The day off trip to Woodstock was just as I remembered: they spent the day visiting funky little shops and enjoying being on their own together. For this trip Marcy wears a wrap around denim skirt, a blue blouse, and stockings. That whole ensemble seemed a dead giveaway to the time period. As far as details dating the book go there were a few others–buying t-shirts that say “I Love NY” on the front and getting their names on the back in glittery letters. But I wondered if people who didn’t remember those shirts the first time around would even realize they were from then. Marcy drinks Tab and her horrible father smokes cigars in the car with rolled up windows (claiming “I don’t smoke with my heart”, so it’s okay), and of course the campers write weekly letters home (no cell phones, no computers). But overall, I think the story did stand up. In fact, it made me wish all over again that I was a camp counselor.

My copy of this book happens to be autographed; she was the first author I ever met and when she came to our school I was so excited. A real live author! Who wrote books I read and liked! It was a true thrill for my middle school self.  I can see why I liked the book back then, and I think certain kids today would still like it, too.

For some more contemporary titles try these suggestions:

If you like Danziger’s style, try the 2003 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults title P.S. Longer Letter Later (from the “Lock It, Lick It, Click It: Diaries, Letters, and Email” list.)

If you like humor, try books from the 2007 PPYA list “What’s So Funny?” for other humorous suggestions.

And if you like camp stories, try Slept Away by Julie Kraut; Spells and Sleeping Bags by Sarah Mylnowski; or Patiently Alice by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.

— Sarah Debraski, currently reading The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

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Sarah Debraski