Over a year into a global pandemic that continues to shape our daily lives, this new middle-grade graphic novel from Whitney Gardner takes a timely look at what it means to be kept apart from your friends. Long Distance is a fun summer-camp adventure with a Scooby-Doo-esque twist, perfect for a season in which our much-hoped-for reunions with friends are still necessarily tentative.
Gardner’s story opens in the Pacific Northwest – familiar territory for the Victoria-born cartoonist – just as protagonist Vega and her dads are moving from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle. Vega is less than enthusiastic about her new life in Washington and is determined not to lose touch with her Portland BFF Halley, who shares her obsession with all things astronomical. Her dads, hoping to give her a head start at making some local friendships, sign her up for Camp Very Best Friend, even though Vega is convinced that her video calls and texts with Halley are all the friendship she needs.
Despite her reluctance, Vega does start to connect with her fellow campers. As it becomes clear that Camp VBF is not quite what it seems, the kids team up to investigate the various mysteries around them. Why are there no animals in these woods? Why doesn’t Vega’s compass work? What’s up with George Washington, the only kid pictured in the camp brochure, who seems to have a different personality every day? And why hasn’t Halley called or at least texted?
It’s a common kidlit trope: a reluctant kid, separated from her usual surroundings, discovers that the camp (or boarding school, relative’s house, etc.) she’s been sent to is more than it seems. Long Distance embraces the familiar comforts of this setup, while still managing to keep us guessing about what exactly is going on at Camp VBF. And though the broad outlines of the narrative are familiar, the focus on the difficulties and joys of maintaining different types of friendships is fresh and welcome, especially in 2021. Yes, sharing space and experiences is important, but Gardner shows us how friendships can thrive and grow even when we’re physically apart.
Gardner’s art is characterized by clear lines and bold colours, and the generous trim size of the book gives the illustrations lots of room to breathe. The visual storytelling is at once straightforward and artful, and her variety in layouts, lettering, and visual rhythm amplify the tensions and the wackiness of her story.
The blend of whimsical sci-fi with grounded, real-world kid stuff makes for a light but satisfying read. Long Distance is a welcome addition to the ever-expanding middle-grade graphic canon, perfect for anyone who’s ever missed a distant friend.