Summer Camp, Friends for Life

Released to Amazon Prime in 2017

Z is attending a summer STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) camp In California with Paz, but they are confused by the head counselor's insistence that they not be allowed the use of any technology until they get in touch with nature and each other. Another girl, Drew, is completely on board with the idea, but Z is more skeptical--and Paz outright hates it.

A younger counselor, Jordan, encourages them to look to nature for inspiration. After all, watching birds inspired people to build planes. Jordan is amazing, but the head counselor denies there's any worker by that name. When Z and Paz look at the picture Jordan took of the three of them together using a camp computer, Jordan's not in the picture...but Drew photobombed them. The person they talked to wasn't there, but someone else was and they never heard or saw her?

When the two friends are trying to find a rational explanation, they're startled by a sound which turns out Jordan's unique charm bracelet hanging on their door and blowing in the wind. They also run in Drew, and realize that she wants to be friends. They put the search for Jordan on hold to start again on the right foot with Drew, and then the trio investigate the mystery.

They find a flip book, presumably from Jordan, filled with cryptic drawings. But because of each girl's talents and interests, they can each interepret parts, and together they can decipher it. They end following glowing footprints into the forest, where the charm bracelet alerts them to a set of keys, which unlocks a gate leading to Jordan, and her cabin full of STEAM wonders. It turns out that Jordan is the goddaughter of the head counselor, whose mother founded the camp and died last year. Jordan didn't think she could take on her godmother's mother's role, so she didn't come back to camp. Except that it called her, and she couldn't resist checking things out. Z and Paz stood out to her as people she should reach out to, so she created a mystery to show them how their talents don't rely on technology. The three girls convince Jordan to come to camp for real, telling her she’ll be able to honor the legacy of the camp founder easily. The movie ends with the campers blending nature and technology to learn more about the world.


One girl smashes a HUGE bug in the opening scene. She pulls away what looks like a wad of chewing gum after she slaps what sounded like a mosquito. Ew.

 Speaking of bugs, how did Z find fireflies in California? They don't live on that side of the Rockies.

There's some really nice animation in parts, like Z's flip book movie.

The captions spell Paz as Paws.

A quote is displayed just before the end credits: "Don't let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It's your place in the world; it's your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live." Dr. Mae Jamison, NASA

Z: Zoe Manarel
Paz: Alison Fernandez
Drew: Lauren Lindsey Donzis
Rae: Camryn Manheim
Jordan: Monique Green
Camper 1: Chloe Beth Jones
Camper 2: Mia Moore


Contemporary Character 2017: Z on Location

Published 2017, author J. J. Howard, book design by Suzanne LaGage, photos by April Messinger Photography and Michael Frost


Z is excited for summer: her favorite vlogger, Winter Costello, has issued a challenge for her followers to to post about their summer adventures. And does Z ever have an adventure! She’s going to VidCon in San Francisco, where she’ll meet some of her far-flung friends, and on the way...Her mom is traveling to some locations in Washington and California to interview different people in the tech business to find out how they’re integrating new technologies into people’s everyday lives (e.g.; an AI robot to help people with autism learn about social interaction, and a company make smart device that connect to each other). She’s letting Z come to help film the interviews!

The first interview is fantastic. Z’s stoked for the next one, but gets distracted by her phone alerts. Her mom tries to get through to her to live in the moment rather than just thinking of what wil make a good post, but it’s hard for Z to not be connected to the internet. As the interviews progress, Z gets more and more distracted until her mom finally calls in one of her students to meet them and take over. Z wants to prove herself, but screws up even worse: she sends a picture from a pen interview with a virtual reality company to her friends back in Seattle...who post the proprietary information on social media. The company finds out and ban them from coming back and revokes permission for the interview to be shown. Z feels awful, and knows she has to regain her mom’s trust. Acting on the student’s advice, she starts small, taking care of tasks she knows she can do, even it’s just something simple like making breakfast. She helps with the interviews rather than trying to make them flashier for posting. She also only uses her phone when strictly necessary, like arranging when to meet her friends (part of this was being grounded from the phone, but Z is prepared to restrict herself on her own). By the time they reach VidCon, Z’s mom is impressed with her efforts and gives her another chance when the student comes down with food poisoning. Specifically, Z gets to film the interview with Winter Costello! Winter offers to grant Z a short interview for her vlog but Z has to decline—just before meeting with her, Z ran into some fans who asked her for an interview, and staying any longer would mean missing that and letting her fans down. Z wants to stay true to her word.

Sticking with the original plan was definitely the right choice. Her fans bring some more fans along, and Z’s friends are there. It’s amazing for Z to see how many people enjoy her work. Even better, Winter shows up and features Z on her vlog! Doing something because it was the right thing rather it being the cool thing led to something even better.


The author dedicates the book to her mother.

I love that Z sends her videos to her parents for approval before posting them online. It’s a good idea for kids the ages of this book’s target audience. (She still uses her full name though, which I wouldn’t be comfortable letting my kids do).

Good research, author! Z’s friends at home send her pictures of a wallaroo at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. It does indeed have wallaroos.


Contemporary Character 2017: The Real Z

Published: 2017. Author: Jen Calonita, book design Susanne Lagasa Photos by April Mersinger Photography, Michael Frost for Scholastic, Eric Isselee/Shutterstock, Inc.


Pacific Northwest resident Suzanne "Z" Yang loves making movies. Her mother teaches film at a nearby university and her dad's a computer expert, so she has great resources to help her with planning, shooting, and editing movies. She does a lot of stop-motion animation with her American Girl dolls and posts the videos online; they're very popular. So while she's excited, it's a not a huge surprise that she's selected to make a documentary about her city for a film festival in Seattle (it's called "CloudSong" but the timing and setup of it...it's SIFF, the Seattle Independent Film Festival). She has six weeks and a nice chunk of change from the festival to film. She shares the news with her friends right away, and they brainstorm ideas about how to make her film stand out.

Z jumps right into shooting different scenes. One of her friends is part of a band, and they agree to cover "Singing in the Rain" for it. Her other friends are on board to help her, too. But Z is so focused on the contest that she lets a few other things slide, like the school project she's working on with her best friend, Lauren (group projects SUCK). Lauren and some of Z's other friends feel pushed to the side, and until Z realizes that she can't just live in one aspect of her life and apologizes, they're annoyed with her. Z finds a way to balance all of her interests with the contest, and is able to put together a rough shoot of what she has. She invites her friends, online and in Seattle, to watch it together.

Z's friends agree that it's very well-shot, but there's something off about most of the footage. It feels more like a commercial for Seattle. It doesn't feel like it has Z's touch on it. Some of the scenes, like of her friend's band performing in the rain, do feel authentic and unique though. Z accepts the constructive criticism well, and thinks about how she can improve her film. She wants to tell not just A story, but HER story. Z re-edits what she's filmed and gets some more footage, changing her focus to being more "a day in the life" from her perspective. When she's satisfied with her film, she submits Zeattle and waits for the results of the contest.

A short time later, Z gets the news that she won second place! (First went to someone who did a documentary focusing on the Seattle Underground.) Her film will be shown at the film festival! It's not first place so it doesn't have the prize money she was hoping to donate to her school's AV club, but she's going to have her work shown in a real film festival! When the big day arrives, Z even gets interviewed on the red carpet. With this under her belt, Z can hardly wait to see what happens next.


Dedicated to Keiran Cook, "a true American Girl and an excellent first reader."

This book is very fast-paced. Z and her friends are all very energetic and seem to be doing everything at top speed. Makes it a very fast and engaging read.

A lot of the mentions of Seattle fit pretty well with the city. The only thing that really stood out to me as not Seattle was how many people were using umbrellas. Most of us in the greater Seattle area have sort of given up on umbrellas and don't bother unless it's really pouring or we're dressed up for something; it's usually people from out-of-town with umbrellas. Since the rain we usually have is fairly light drizzle and it's often breezy, umbrellas aren't as common as you might expect. So while it makes sense for Z to have rain gear for her camera equipment, people carrying them is a bit odder.

Z has a dalmatian named Popcorn.

Z's mom probably teaches at Seattle Pacific University. They live on Queen Anne hill and her university is close to their house--SPU's on Queen Anne.

Z's friends are a fairly diverse group; she's Korean, one friend is Hispanic, one lives in London (online friend), one uses a wheelchair (also an online friend; they all met at a con). But it's not shoved in your face, and just comes up naturally. Plus the characters are all well-rounded. For example, one girl isn't just the girl in the wheelchair; she's the girl who loves to make online videos and plays basketball too.

An Asian character in Seattle makes a lot of sense: being closer to Asia than the East Coast, there are a lot of people here of Asian descent. Just in my family, I have three aunts, an uncle, three first cousins, a brother-in-law, two nieces, a nephew, and four first cousins once removed who are all or part Korean, Vietnamese, or Filipino. Some were actually born in Asia, some have been here their whole lives.

Z's best friend plays soccer and her favorite soccer ball is bright green. It should have been a Sounders ball; Seattle's pro soccer team colors are "rave green" (a sort of kelly green), "Sounder blue" (a sort of slightly greyish royal blue), and "Cascade shale" (dark grey, almost black).

It's so weird to read about American Girl dolls in an American Girl book.

There are a lot of videos in the style of Z's on the American Girl Youtube channel here.