Review: Camp Mah Tovu
Camp Mah Tovu (American Horse Tales)
by Yael Mermelstein
Penguin Workshop (imprint of Penguin Random House)
Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Judith S. Greenblatt
Our heroine, Lila is ADHD, and even as she tried to stop herself from talking too much and exaggerating, she exaggerates to the point of lying. Soon, the other girls in the bunk dislike her so much they leave her out of the raid to the boys’ side of camp. But – that’s when she meets her horse. One of the American Horse Tales series, an important part of the story is the relationship between Lila and her horse, Lonny, who is also a loner. With the help of an understanding counselor, Lila succeeds in riding Lonny. Lonny and the rest of her pack of wild horses live at the edge of Camp Mah Tovu and are in danger from ranchers who use harsh tactics as they prepare to move the herd off the property. Lila uses her skill at reading to trade favors with struggling reader bunkmate Sarah, and together they speak to Sarah’s father, the rancher in charge of moving the horses. But they need to convince Esme ́, the girl who has been meanest to Lila, to enlist her councilman father in their effort. After a lot of work, the important adults are convinced, and the horses are saved. With so much at stake, Lila learns to control her tongue, and not only saves the horses, but also saves her summer, making friends and gaining self-esteem. While the outcome may be predictable, the descriptions that Lila and her counselor give of the different ways their brains work and the descriptions of the horses are worthy of finding an audience.
Camp Mah Tovu has strong Jewish values. The Jewish concept of Tza'ar Ba'alei Chayim, the ethical treatment of animals, is a very important value is Judaism and is a foundational element of the story told in this book. It is the love and concern for horses that enables Lila to concentrate sufficiently so that she is able to lessen the effect of her ADHD enough to learn how to ride a horse. The same love enables her to control herself enough to connect with Sarah, and even more importantly, with Esme. Esme, who has been the epitome of meanness becomes Lila’s ally in the fight to save the horses.
As Camp Ma Tovu is a Jewish camp, references to Jewish practices are interwoven with the story. The campers celebrate Shabbat, and there are prayers every morning. There is also a discussion of Tisha B’Av. Hebrew and Yiddish words are used, but unfortunately there is no distinction made between the two languages. The words siddurim and chazan, for instance, are used without used without translation. However, there is a description of Lilia’s mother's word pekalach. I am troubled by the use of the word kibbutz, which is a community settlement in Israel, to describe a gathering, instead of the more appropriate word, kumzitz. Also troubling is the mixed use of Hebrew and Yiddish. These difficulties aside, Camp Ma Tovu shows a warm appreciation for Jewish values.
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