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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.