Summer camp looms large in the American imagination. From The Parent Trap to Bug Juice, from Hey Dude to Bunk’d, summer camp has long been a favorite of Hollywood, on screens both big and small.
Still, while it may seem like every fictional character imaginable has spent at least one summer at a sleepaway camp, research suggests that in reality, it’s only a vanishingly small percentage of parents who send their kids away for even part of the summer.
Thankfully, for those of us who never got that classic summer sleepaway camp experience, there is no end to the number of summer camp-themed books we can fall into to get a sense of what we missed. Actually, scratch that: I diving into these summer camp-themed books, we don’t just get to see what we missed by having *A* camp experience of our own, we get to vicariously experience a whole universe of cabin-and-canoe summers, even when we’re stuck at home, and even when summer is fading and another school year is lurking just around the corner.
So, while this list doesn’t even come close to covering all the great summer camp-themed books that are out there, it does at least run the gamut of what a summer camp book can be. Sweet? Adventure-filled? Terrifying? Queer? Yes! These ten books cover all those and more. So dive in—whatever vibe you’re after, there’s a summer camp read here for you.
To Night Owl from Dogfish is a charmer of a middle grade epistolary novel that uses emails, texts, postcards, and voicemails to take readers through the burgeoning, camp-set friendship of two girls who just might become stepsisters, if all goes well with their parents’ courtship back home.
While there are admittedly entirely too many adults letting their life plans be dictated by twelve-year-olds in this book, the whole thing is such a fun roller coaster of emotions that suspending that particular thread of disbelief is more than worth it.
And for my fellow audiophiles, the fully soundscaped audiobook is narrated by Imani Parks, Cassandra Morris and a full cast, runs 6 hours 13 minutes long, and can be found on Libro.fm here.
When the first issue of Lumberjanes hit the comic store shelves in 2010, it felt like it broke every kind of new ground possible. Co-created by Shannon Watters, Gus Allen, Grace Ellis and N. D. Stevenson, the summer camp-set series was taking on wooded mysteries, tween crushes, and underage cryptid adventures two whole years before Gravity Falls even premiered. And with such a vibrantly broad range of characters for readers to identify with, from the full-speed-ahead April to the coolheaded Jo to the ace archer Molly to the soft punk Mal to the tween whirlwind Ripley—most of them comfortably queer, each of them fiercely protective of all the rest—it’s no wonder Mariko Tamaki and Gus Allen were so successful in spinning their story out to novel-length form. In short: Friendship to the max!
And for my fellow audiophiles, the Unicorn Power! audiobook is narrated by Amanda Leigh Cobb, runs 4 hours 15 minutes long, and can be found on Libro.fm here.
For a certain pre-teen set (and their adult loved ones), Stuart Gibbs’ Spy School books are an institution.
Funny, action-packed, and full of spy fiction silliness, Spy Camp, which finds its junior spy protagonist, Ben “Smokescreen” Ripley sent off toa wilderness survival camp for the summer, is perfect for anyone who loved Artemis Fowl or Alex Ryder. Plus, as only the second installment in the 10-book series (!), it’s as good a place for new readers to dive into Gibbs’ world as any.
And for my fellow audiophiles, the audiobook is narrated by Gibson Frazier, runs >6 hours 43 minutes long, and can be found on Libro.fm here.
Both the Greek demigod summer camp setting of The Lightning Thief books and the Roman demigod camp setting of the Heroes of Olympus books that followed are so well known that real-life versions of both spring up every summer across the country (and, possibly, the world). I can’t imagine either of these are series most people reading this list will need to be told to pick up for the first time, but in case you’re in the mood for a comfort read and had forgotten that Percy Jackson and his friends existed, consider this your seasonal reminder.
And for my fellow audiophiles, the audiobook is narrated by Jesse Bernstein, runs 10 hours 1 minutes long, and can be found on Libro.fm here.
I may be a ringer for this one, having spent a couple seasons working at a Russian immersion camp in the north woods of Minnesota, but if what you’re in the mood for is more along the lines of a funny because it’s true memoir, Vera Brogsol’s graphic novel take on her memories going off to Russian summer camp as a young immigrant teen will grab you by the heart. Well-paced and full of smart dialogue and emotional grace, Be Prepared is just a beautiful story, well told.
And for my fellow audiophiles… well, tough luck on this one. Just go and enjoy the graphic novel in all its illustrated glory!
Look, summer camp as a kid may be for s’mores, singalongs, kayak trips, and prank wars, but summer camp as an elder teen? It’s all about summer romance, baby! Well, that and things like finding your inner value and discovering your place in the world. That’s where L. C. Rosen’s Camp comes in.
Part queer rom-com, part queer coming-of-age drama, part complex queer character study (yes, that makes it 150% queer), Camp is for the upper YA readers of this list who are ready to read about some teen joy and reality within a loving, glitteringly inclusive summer camp setting.
And for my fellow audiophiles, the audiobook is narrated by Drew Caiden, runs 10 hours 22 minutes long, and can be found on Libro.fm here.
Another nostalgia pick for any Millennial reading this list, Holes is arguably more about America’s many historic xenophobic, racial, and carceral failures than it is about a summer camp. But as anyone who has memorized the 2003 film will already know, it also wouldn’t have the punch it does if the correctional facility Stanley Yelnats gets sent to didn’t operate like a summer camp as seen through a desert funhouse mirror.
Also, while I may not need to have recommended readers of this list read The Lightning Thief, in this case I suspect the opposite is true, the film adaptation of Holes having made a big enough splash that it’s become a modern classic, effectively sucking up all the oxygen from Holes the book. So if you’re among the many who’s seen the movie a dozen times but has never read the book, consider this an opportunity to change that.
And for my fellow audiophiles, the audiobook is narrated by Kerry Beyer, runs 4 hours 29 minutes long, and can be found on Libro.fm here.
Speaking of nostalgia, here we’ve got a summer camp book from the last millennium. Arguably the king of school library whore, R. L. Stine was doing summer camp slashers all the way back in 1993. If you’re looking for any kind of elevated literary value, we can’t promise you’ll find that here. But if you’re looking for a classic hit of what Stine does best, Welcome to Camp Nightmare is the summer camp book for you.
And for my fellow audiophiles, there’s no audiobook for this classic title, alas, but there is an Audible Original called Camp Red Moon that came in out in 2019 that is performed by a full cast, runs 4 hours 32 minutes long, and can be found on Audible here
For upper YA readers looking for a bit less in the queer rom-com department and a bit more in the true crime teen sleuth and/or 70s slasher flicks one, Maureen Johnson’s The Box in the Woods—a standalone follow-up to the Stevie Bell trilogy that wrapped a couple of years ago—might be for you.
Set at a summer camp that closed after playing unwilling host to a gruesome unsolved murder in the 1970s that’s been bought and renovated by a box start-up tech bro, The Box in the Woods also sees the return not just of Stevie Bell, but all her fancy Vermont boarding school friends. So if you’ve been missing Truly Devious, pick this one up! But also, don’t worry if you haven’t even heard of Truly Devious—The Box in the Woods, like the UK-set Nine Liars set to publish this fall, requires absolutely no foreknowledge of the original trilogy.
And for my fellow audiophiles, the audiobook is narrated by Kate Rudd, runs 9 hours 12 minutes long, and can be found on Libro.fm here.
Hot off the literal presses, Ryan La Sala‘s The Honeys is easily the queerest, saddest, eeriest, most unsettling summer camp book on this list. Pitched to potential readers as one part Heathers, one part Midsommar, La Sala’s The Honeys follows the story of a genderfluid teen named Mars as, the summer after his much more outgoing twin, Caroline, dies in tragic circumstances, he takes her place at a prestigious summer conservancy that might just also play host to a hot girl bee cult. Using horror tropes to examine (and skewer) toxic masculinity, The Honeys is pretty much as far as you can get from the feel-good sweetness of To Night Owl from Dogfish, but that’s the joy of the summer camp context! It makes all things possible.
And for my fellow audiophiles, the audiobook is narrated by Pete Cross, runs 10 hours 37 minutes long, and can be found on Libro.fm here.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.