It’s not uncommon that I find a book or show on a recommendation list somewhere that’s meant for younger readers, but deserves attention from adults as well. Lumberjanes is one of those – a series of comics meant for middle-grade kids, with a particular point of empowering young women through surreal and often humorous fantasy escapades. Part of that uncommon but excellent genre of supernatural summer camp stories, Lumberjanes simultaneously fits and exceeds expectations.
What you see is what you get; it’s a story about a summer camp for girls where magical creatures and phenomena occasionally interrupt the day’s beading class or canoeing trip. But there’s a surprising charm to small moments throughout this series. Certain panels, subplots, and character interactions add something special to the already charming premise.
Even if that description doesn’t appeal to you, if you are interested in keeping up with the landscape of narrative fiction, especially that aimed at newer audiences, this is a series to read. You can get the gist of it within a few books, but if you pursue it further, you might find it growing on you.
3P Reviews Series: Jumberjanes
Audience Assumptions: None
Content Warnings: Mention of colonialism, minor violence; cartoon amputation, reclaimed use of the term “queer.”
Star Rating: ***
Part One: Not Your Average Girl Scout Camp
Lumberjanes is a fantasy adventure series with a strong reminiscence of shows like Steven Universe and Gravity Falls. It revolves around five girls at a summer scout camp — Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types, to be exact – as they explore the surrounding enchanted forest while earning their merit badges.
The girls in question are the delightfully ferocious April, soft bookworm Molly, music-loving but fearful Mal, tech-wiz Jo, and Riley, who is a one-girl bundle of pure chaos. These characters make up the Roanoke Cabin and are notorious for stirring up mischief whether they intend it or not. While most of the trouble the other campers get into involves things like accidentally losing the key to the storage closet, it’s not unusual for the Roanoke girls to stumble upon thousand-year-old puzzles that accidentally unlock world-destroying beasts, or strike up a feud with the local yetis.
This makes them a constant concern for Jen, the older camp councilor whose job is to keep her cabin safe and guide them in earning merit badges. Monsters and ancient Greek gods are well above her paygrade, but the Roanoke Cabin seems to attract exactly that, despite Jen’s best efforts.
By contrast, the camp director, Rosie, is mostly fine with these misadventures. She went to the camp when she was young, and from the sound of it, she was the type to be pulled into similar misadventures. Rosie is a common foil to Jen, serving as a woodsman-type who encourages exploration where Jen wants caution. However, Rosie has her mysterious and even mildly sinister side as well. She knows this forest better than almost anyone, and while she often seems lackadaisical, there are mysteries and dangers she knows about that she’s good at keeping hidden.
Throughout the series, other recurring characters pop up and make contributions. Two prominent figures of note are Barney and Diane. Barney is a camper at the boy’s camp across the lake, who thinks the girls’ camp would be much more fun. Barney comes up frequently whenever the girls visit the boys’ camp, and a few books in, Rosie invites Barney to become a Lumberjane. Diane is a surly older camper who turns out to be the Greek goddess Artemis, trapped on earth in a competition with her brother, Apollo. Initially an antagonist, Diane gradually becomes a reluctant ally who sometimes offers insight into the magic of the surrounding forest.
Together in various combinations, the five main girls, plus Barney, Diane, Jen, and sometimes Rosie, stumble their way through magical encounters ranging from life-threatening to ego-bruising, and learn important lessons about themselves along the way.
Part Two: Love and Friendship
As you might have guessed from the art style, this series skews a bit young. It’s appropriate for all-ages, but I would say it fits firmly into that middle grade age range of 8-12. Stylistically and tonally, it’s not far from the Percy Jackson series, though it rarely gets truly dark at any point. There are monsters, certainly, but most problems the characters come across can be solved with punching, compromises, bribery (often in the form of some sort of food), and/or magical cats.
Humor and lightheartedness pervade the series, with most story events resolving within four issues. There is an overarching story relating to the mystery of the camp’s origins and a shapeshifting bear woman who hangs out in the deeper parts of the forest, but if you are the sort to crave a linear narrative, this might not be the series for you. The overarching plot is revisited infrequently and most of the Lumberjanes stories are one-off goofy escapades involving camp activities with a supernatural twist. Memorable encounters involve an ill-fated Parents’ Day scavenger hunt, a yeti/sasquatch roller derby, and a mermaid punk rock concert. Those stories are cute, and sometimes character-building, but they won’t scratch the right itch for most readers; they’re just there for fun.
For me, the most interesting parts of the book are the representation it offers for younger readers. Almost all of the characters in the series are girls and women, which is still rare to see in a fantasy-action series, especially one that isn’t inherently gendered in its focus. While the book is largely designed to speak to female readers by having a largely female cast, the characters range widely in their presentation and interests, some being more girly and others tomboyish, but most of them somewhere in-between.
The series has several non-White major characters including three of its core cast, as well as Jen and Diane. The series doesn’t ever directly grapple with issues of discrimination or inequality, which is a fair point to criticize it for, given how scout camps are linked to the colonial legacy of the U.S. That said, the character designs are lovely, and little honest touches like Riley speaking Spanish around her family are heartwarming when combined with the distinct and multi-faceted characters these girls grow into over the course of the series.
And a big draw for me is the number of queer characters who show up. Queer coding is prevalent throughout the books, from Rosie’s massive biceps and tattoos to the entire boys’ camp simultaneously rejecting toxic masculinity to go play with kittens. However, the series goes a step further than that. The strong bond between Mal and Molly turns into one of the series’ few romances and an important part of both characters’ arcs; after being accepted into the camp, Barney comes out as nonbinary and starts using they/them pronouns; Jo has two fathers and later reveals that she’s trans; and although easy to miss, Diane is implied to be ace by her explicit disinterest in romance. Queer representation isn’t perfunctory here, making this one of a small but increasing number of genuine pieces of queer media designed for kids. That’s important, especially in a series that is not explicitly queer in its premise.
Part Three: Happiness from a Distance
For all its charm and pleasantness, there is something about Lumberjanes that prevents me from enjoying it wholeheartedly, though.
The series has plenty of flaws. Like I said, it wavers in its plotting, going from being deep and interesting to being extremely silly in no seconds flat, and it takes a while to readjust to explore nuanced issues again. Problems are often resolved quickly with little clear effort on the protagonists’ parts, and no problem ever goes unresolved. The art style jumps around between a few different artists, which can be pretty jarring at times, especially toward the start of the comics.
But none of those problems can really override the merits of the series.
No, while reading these books, there was something else that bothered me, and I keep wondering if it’s a flaw with these books or an oversight of my own.
It’s difficult to put to words, but I felt it most strongly when Barney, started to use they/them pronouns and the characters had a brief discussion about what pronouns were. The scene is fine on the surface; it’s respectful, informative, and goes exactly the way you would hope coming out as nonbinary with they/them pronouns would go.
But the mere fact that the characters have to have the conversation hints at a part of the underlying fabric of the story that is conspicuously absent. The world of Lumberjanes is functionally utopian, presenting a space that is welcoming where problems can be resolved quickly and easily through cleverness, apologies, and talking things out. Which is great, hypothetically. But our real world doesn’t work that way, and the books often import aspects of our less pleasant world without realizing it.
In the real world, people come with biases, gaps in their knowledge, and preconceived worldviews. Well-meaning people often get things wrong when talking about queer issues, even queer folks ourselves, and many people, for one reason or another, are not always well-meaning. Despite being nonbinary myself, I got the distinct feeling while reading this passage that it wasn’t meant for me, and not just because I’m an adult. The tone of this scene indicates that it’s there first and foremost to educate binary readers. A character asks Barney’s pronouns, they tell them what to use, someone asks what a pronoun is, and another character gives them a definition.
The thing about this scene is that it isn’t really about Barney, it’s about the people around them. Barney doesn’t ask others to use they/them pronouns, they were prompted by someone else, and they were asked at a bit of an odd point in the story as well. I have an unpleasant suspicion that the writers felt a need to justify Barney being nonbinary as an element of them wanting to be in the girls’ camp. If true, that would undermine the series’ dismantling of gender norms in scout camps — by the time Barney joins the Lumberjanes, the boys’ camp is functionally the same as the Lumberjanes camp, it just doesn’t have their Roanoke friends in it. Plus, not all nonbinary people are fem-leaning, so separating a “boys” camp and a “girls plus nonbinary folks” camp isn’t especially progressive. Why not combine both camps into one?
Barney doesn’t really get any time to consider what it means for them to be nonbinary. We don’t get any scenes of gender euphoria, or Barney playing around with their appearance, and Barney doesn’t ever get to talk to other queer characters (of which there are several) about being queer. There’s little exploration of what Barney thinks about being nonbinary, or how they feel about the binary split between the camps. And while all of that may seem a bit much for a lighthearted series like this to manage, I can tell you from experience, those are some of the basic things a nonbinary person would be interested in if they were in Barney’s shoes.
Queerness is an immutable aspect of a person, but it also carries with it culture and history. The connection to that culture and history differs for each person, and is complicated by the way that queerness is not something you inherit from your family, but it’s there nonetheless. While being queer can be normalized to the point of nonchalance in a hypothetical world, the world we live in isn’t hypothetical. In the U.S. and Western culture more generally, queer labels exist in response to centuries of discrimination and erasure. If you have a world where people need to have pronouns explained to them, it’s because pronoun choice is not something they ambiently pick up from their environment, and that others Barney, even as the story wants us to accept Barney being nonbinary as something that warrants no further character exploration.
You can’t have it both ways; you can’t make a big deal about having queer characters in your story while also portraying queerness as a normal, mundane part of the background. I like both of these portrayals in their own contexts, but they’re at odds with one another when applied to the same element. The reason having queer characters in a story is a big deal is because we’ve not always been allowed to have them. And while Lumberjanes is very LGBT+ positive overall, I get the unfortunate sense that they’re either not interested in or not capable of wrangling the deeper questions that come with being queer.
It feels superficial. That’s one of the risks that comes with a story that is overwhelmingly lighthearted; while it makes for good escapism, if escapism is all it has, anything that breaks the fantasy and reminds you of the harshness of the real world, even indirectly, can pull you out of it. When you are no longer a part of the story, you’re forced to view the happiness of the characters from afar. You end up feeling bittersweet about it — happy that the characters are happy, and happy the series is presumably inspiring joy in others, but sad and a little bit hurt that I can’t join them.
The further I got into Lumberjanes, the more I was reminded that the least surreal parts of the story were often just as fantastical as the time portals and mermaids. In the real world, sometimes queer kids are bullied. Sometimes friends are selfish. Sometimes apologies are insincere. Sometimes there is no easy answer. Sometimes you fail. Sometimes you can’t right a wrong.
There is some merit in escapism, but I don’t know that escapism is the only thing Lumberjanes is doing, because it clings to our real world very firmly. One of the characters wears a raccoon skin hat, which is actually a live raccoon, and while I have praised the raccoon hat for being charming in the past (and stand by that assertion), it’s also a small indicator of this problem. It’s kind of hard to praise the look of a raccoon skin cap without realizing it’s a dead animal. That particular type of hat is meant to remind you where it came from, and it conjures an image of hunters and fur trappers. By having the hat be a living raccoon, Lumberjanes avoids some of the negative connotations of that image, but at the end of the day, it still looks like Molly has a raccoon skin cap on her head.
Maybe I’m complaining about nothing, but if the positivity of this world are just as fictional as the monsters, what are you ultimately learning from it? The series sometimes seems to value sanitization more than exploration, and while I understand the desire for it, I think the series overreaches in an effort to keep the story wholesome, or at least wholesome in appearance. Sometimes these things are best kept small if that’s your end goal..
On the one hand, I would have loved to have a series like this as a child. On the other, I’m not entirely sure it would have been entirely healthy for me – not without additional context and an understanding of how to deal with people who aren’t as welcoming as the antagonists it portrays.
I don’t know. I genuinely don’t know how to feel about this series. We need something like it, and I think it’s a step in the right direction, but it feels unstable to me, and I don’t like that sense of isolation that comes with it. But then again, that could just be a me thing. I tend to overthink things, and I’m not a twelve-year-old like the target demographic is. This is a beloved book series, and there’s a lot to love about it. It’s not my jam, and that’s fine.
So I think I can recommend it, but with the caveat that it also might not be fore you. If you want something more grounded or that acknowledges the dark side of life, this isn’t that. This isn’t even really Steven Universe, though it does have a similar vibe. We’re fortunate enough to have some choice in our media when looking for representation, and while I don’t know of any queer-positive series like this with such a prominent female cast, I do know that there are others out there. And hey, this one really isn’t that bad. Just temper your expectations, and I think you’ll have a decent time with it.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Aesthetics and Style: 7