Chunky Goes to Camp

  • Review
By – January 2, 2023

Hudi Mer­ca­do, the smart, fun­ny, and inse­cure Jew­ish Lati­no kid who first appeared in Chunky, is ready for sum­mer camp. Per­haps ready” is an over­state­ment for some­one so con­scious of his dif­fi­cul­ties fit­ting into any social set­ting, but his par­ents have decid­ed to ship him off to Camp Green, a Jew­ish envi­ron­ment that is the only alter­na­tive to soc­cer camp. In this high­ly rec­om­mend­ed sto­ry, author Yehu­di Mer­ca­do has cre­at­ed, à la his first vol­ume, a younger ver­sion of him­self who is utter­ly con­vinc­ing and impos­si­ble not to like. His imag­i­nary mas­cot, Chunky, a fun­ny but insight­ful crea­ture who shares a body type and a sense of irony with his human friend, is also back to sup­port Hudi and offer insights.

One of the author-illustrator’s most notable skills is his abil­i­ty to bal­ance humor and anx­i­ety. His char­ac­ters encounter sad­ness and fear but nev­er drown in their emo­tions. No, Hudi does not make lemon­ade out of lemons; he chan­nels his comedic gifts to stare sad­ness in the face, and he refus­es to sur­ren­der. When a nasty vice prin­ci­pal, Mr. Hyatt, tries to con­vert Hudi’s com­plex­i­ties into the sin­gle char­ac­ter­is­tic of trou­ble­mak­er,” Hudi instinc­tive­ly knows how to respond. A mugshot of Hudi, com­plete with a degrad­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber, pro­vides a glimpse into Hudi’s school year, which is marked by repeat­ed, unjust deten­tions. With Chunky’s help, Hudi tes­ti­fies on his own behalf in a Kafkaesque tri­al — although log­i­cal argu­ment seems hope­less when Hyatt asserts that by deny­ing it, you make your­self look even more guilty.” No won­der that Hudi’s par­ents place all their hopes in a sum­mer that is out­doors and full of Yid­dishkeit.

Camp Green is home to a full cast of char­ac­ters. There are the rich campers who tor­ment Hudi and his bunk of fel­low mis­fits, and there’s the tough Tzofim (Israeli scouts) staff mem­ber who reminds Hudi that he is an indoor Mex­i­can.” There is a kind, gui­tar-play­ing coun­selor whose relent­less­ly pos­i­tive atti­tude seems slight­ly mis­placed. The summer’s most sig­nif­i­cant rela­tion­ship, though, is Hudi’s friend­ship with Pepe Guz­man, anoth­er wise­crack­ing boy who shares both Hudi’s eth­nic­i­ty and his irrev­er­ent jok­ing. While Hudi is excit­ed to find a soul­mate, he also won­ders if Pepe’s sim­i­lar­i­ty to him may actu­al­ly chal­lenge his unique iden­ti­ty. Mer­ca­do cap­tures Hudi’s ambiva­lence, as well as his con­fu­sion, when Pepe turns out to be some­what dif­fer­ent from the image he has tried to project. For­tu­nate­ly for Hudi and the read­er, Chunky is there to offer perspective.

When the camp’s Mac­cabi­ah com­pe­ti­tion con­cludes with a spe­cial tiebreak­er, Hudi’s per­for­mance becomes the per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty for him to process his feel­ings and invite the audi­ence to iden­ti­fy with him. This short and heavy­set boy with glass­es holds the micro­phone with new­found con­fi­dence, com­bin­ing comedic tim­ing, emo­tion­al insights, and con­sid­er­able chutz­pah. In the after­word, as Mer­ca­do reflects back on his child­hood, he assures odd­balls” and weirdos” that they will find their niche and live to tell the tale.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions