“There are things that happen. Little things that make a difference.” For sixth grader Ella, who lives outside Las Vegas, the little things are everything. Her best girlfriend Millie has abandoned the long-standing threesome of Ella, Zachary (known as Z) and Millie, and now Ella’s life is off balance. Someone has to watch out for Z, whose imaginary life is becoming odder and odder, and that someone is Ella. She and Z spend all their time together—at school, at the library or around the neighborhood—and they are often lost in an elaborate fantasy life filled with knights and ladies.
Ella, the only black student in her school, is the object of teasing and taunting. Her skin tone is uneven, which earns her the cruel nickname “Camo Face.” Her unruly hair invites the boys to throw paper and other detritus at her. The fact that she spends all her time with Z only adds to her exclusion. When handsome, socially savvy black student Bailey arrives at the school, things instantly change for everyone, especially Ella. Her new friendship with Bailey is threatening to Z, and Ella feels forced to choose between her old friend and having a larger social life.
What really struck me about Camo Girl was how real this junior high school world felt. Every character, especially narrator Ella, is intensely self-aware. She notices Millie’s hair, how much Z is eating, the exact location of the mean boys, how to extricate items from her hair without being noticed and how to order the right beverage at the soda shop. She thinks long and hard about why Bailey leaves a basketball in her driveway and is always aware of Z, whether he is at school, the library or at Wal-Mart. The three main characters are all looking for the same thing—a father. And this search leads each to see the world through that gaping hole.
Writer Kekla Magoon, who debuted in 2009 with the award-winning civil rights story The Rock and The River, crafts her second novel so perfectly that the reader clings to Ella’s point of view—and, like Ella, is surprised when all the pieces fall into place.