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The Order of the Poison Oak    by Brent Hartinger order for
Order of the Poison Oak
by Brent Hartinger
Order:  USA  Can
HarperTempest, 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by Ricki Marking-Camuto

Summer camp is a popular setting for many YA novels. It affords the opportunity for romance and adventure away from parents and other authority figures - and it also affords the opportunity for bratty kids and silly pranks. While Brent Hartinger's The Order of the Poison Oak includes the requisite romance, adventure, bratty kids and silly pranks, it contains so much more.

Russel Middlebrook's life at school has been hell since he started the Goodkind High Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance. Tired of constantly being labeled 'The Gay Kid,' he just wants to get away for the summer. Russel's best friend Gunnar hands him an opportunity - a friend of Gunnar's family is hiring summer camp counselors. Russel, Gunnar and Min head to Camp Serenity for what they hope will be an uneventful summer. However, as one of the returning camp counselors puts it, 'Summer camp is different ... Things happen.' Things certainly do happen: Russel meets a girl perfect for Gunnar, but has trouble hooking them up; a hunky guy plays both Russel and Min (as well as every other counselor); Russel learns to look past physical appearances and falls in love; and, best of all, he unites a group of unruly campers through an unlikely source - poison oak.

While at first this story might sound as fluffy as most YA beach books, Hartinger once again gets the reader (along with Russel) learning to look beyond what someone looks like to who someone is. The first group of campers to attend Camp Serenity each summer is entirely made up of burn survivors (a unique aspect of the book in and of itself). Russel, who thinks he is oh-so-sensitive because he is gay, quickly realizes that he does not know how to handle this group. Soon, with the help of a fellow counselor, he learns to look beyond their scars and see them as regular kids. Once he starts to master this lesson, Russel gains the self-confidence that might see him through the next school-year.

Hartinger has created the perfect narrator in Russel Middlebrook he is open, he is honest, and he is real. So, if you are looking for a summer read with a little more substance than many other YA novels, be sure to pick up The Order of the Poison Oak (and if you have not already done so, also grab Hartinger's first novel starring Russel, The Geography Club).

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