The Half-Orphan's Handbook / Joan F. Smith / Book Review


The last place Lila wants to go this summer is camp. She simply wants to curl up, hide away, and pretend the rest of the world doesn't exist. It has only been a few months since her father's traumatic death, after all; she deserves a break.

When Lila's mother finds a summer camp specifically for kids who have lost someone close, however, she insists that Lila and her baby brother Sammy attend. Lila agrees to give camp a chance for a single week--enough to appease her mother but not enough to make any attachments. Attachment only leads to hurt. She doesn't want the new friends that camp offers. She especially doesn't want the budding romance that bumps into her on her first day at camp, and she can fend these potential attachments off with one thought: at the end of the week, she never has to see them again.

But when Lila gets caught breaking camp rules, she is given a choice: disappoint her mother by returning home early or stay all summer long to see where grief camp can lead. And staying might just mean she can't keep people at arm's length.



Serious Shenanigans Joan F. Smith blends all of the fun of summer camp stories with a more serious undertone--specifically, the underlying grief of all the campers. Lila leaves home, finds new friends, breaks rules, plays pranks, and crafts on the lake shore. But she also attends group therapy, has heartfelt discussions, and starts down a long path towards healing. This book is full of tropey-in-a-good-way camp shenanigans, and it also has the feel of another YA staple: the trip of self-discovery. This book isn't afraid of the hard topics, but it also isn't afraid to mix some lighthearted fun into the plot as well--a great balance.

Pure Honesty One (unfortunately common) YA trope that I hate is drama-by-omission. That is, most of the dramatic tension of a book is the result of someone keeping a (usually benign) secret. Just being honest--or even just slightly more honest--would have alleviated all of the troubles to begin with. I hate this method by which YA authors create tension, and I was so relieved to pick up a contemporary YA book that didn't hinge on this drama-by-omission. In fact, in this book, the characters are refreshingly honest with themselves and with each other, and not just in their therapy sessions. They have enough to deal with already without any artificial tension. I wish more YA books would do away with drama-inducing omissions. Honesty is healthy and important. We need more of it in fiction and in reality.

Surprising Humor It might be strange to imagine in a book centered around very personal and very raw grief, but surprising (in a good way) humor is sprinkled throughout these pages as well. Puns, jokes, and friendly ribbing all make the page--humor that doesn't usually play a role in grief-centered narratives but is here quite important to the healing of the characters. A beautiful silver lining runs through this book which gives it a different feel than similar books. This humor is distinctive and uplifting in a book all about reaching for normal after tragedy.


Usually, I find that the main character's first-person narration sounds too mature for the middling teenager they're meant to be. Here, however, my critique is not with Lila's voice but with Sammy's character. Baby Sammy is meant to be twelve years old, and yet he speaks like a much older character. His dialogue is complete with several cringey, supposed-to-sound-like-a-twelve-year-old "ladies' man" lines for good measure. The execution here was off-putting. Mature Baby Brother

Though Lila sounded neither too old nor too young as a narrator, her voice isn't particularly unique. She sounds like most other contemporary YA narrators, unfortunately. Nothing about her voice stands out--though her story itself does. She is decently written. Her voice is decently constructed. It is just not memorable in and of itself. Typical Voice

I know it's a summer camp story. I know that, but honestly, this book purports to be so much more. There is more to it, after all--there is a scattering of group therapy sessions, grief counseling, et cetera. However, a lot of those healing-focused additions get drowned out by the camp tropes. This book is absolutely dominated by sneaking out, underaged drinking, make-out sessions, archery, swimming, sailing, field trips, pranks... You name it. The camp shenanigans take over much of the plot. There's even some girl-drama thrown into the mix. There's camp fun, and then there's plot-dominating camp fun. In a book where the grief-aspect should have been just as key, it was sad to see that narrative made somewhat secondary. Too Camp-Driven



Anyone looking for another summer camp story after Emma Lord's You Have a Match should check out this new camp-with-a-higher-purpose. Those who enjoyed the journey to healing and self-love in Ashley Schumacher's Amelia Unabridged will enjoy this summer of grief and resilience.


Publisher: Imprint
Date: April 6, 2021
Series: N/A
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Note: I was provided with an ARC by the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions here are my own.


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