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Book Review of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S.”

by Vicki Pitman Brady

My Thoughts on a book, “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S.” by Jennifer Fink and Debbie Fink, M.A., Illustrated by Walter Blackwell. Published by Harmony Hearth, LLC, 2013, 2012, Second Edition, 56 pages.

champs

I promised to do a book review on what is considered to be a somewhat controversial book in the international “BRAT” community…Here is my humble opinion on the book, from both a military (Navy) brat perspective and from a writer’s perspective.

Upon opening the package and first looking at the book, I was disappointed, even posting “Oh NO! It is worse than I thought.” With the sponsored USO tours and the videos of children at those USO events looking so excited, I thought the Finks had come up with a fun, entertaining book about being a BRAT, especially if they are looking to change the term. I thought they must have something quite remarkable and memorable if it was going to change a long held and much beloved term from “BRAT” to “C.H.A.M.P.” based on their book. I was disappointed. It looks like a classroom reading assignment; more like a text book than a book a child or parent would eagerly pick up off the book store or library shelf. As a writer myself, I had imagined lyrics to bring the story to the audience of 5-12 year olds. It was far from that. It appeared to be as interesting as my elementary school math book.

That being said, I put the book down and then picked it up several times over the past two days since it arrived in the mail. I will give you all a quick glimpse at the book.

The book starts off with a “Statement of Support for Our C.H.A.M.P.S” on the inside cover. It says “We recognize the selfless service to our Nation made by the children of those serving in the Armed Forces and by the children of our Veterans.” It goes on to a commitment to the well-being of the C.H.A.M.P.S and an acknowledgement of “the behavioral, emotional, academic, and social needs of our C.H.A.M.P.S.” Supporters of the C.H.A.M.P.S includes: USO; Military Child Education Coalition; the Armed Forces YMCA; National Military Family Association; National Association of Elementary School Principals; American Red Cross; Operation Homefront; UNITED through READING; Blue Star Families; AFA; Marine Corps League; Association of the United States Army Family Readiness; Navy League of the United States; Coast Guard Foundation; and, of course, Operation C.H.A.M.P.S…

…Once you flip the page into the beginning of the book, the next page begins with, “To the children who serve our country as their parents defend our freedoms. Go Champs! Special thanks to the USO, the organization that led the way in helping this book see the light of day.” They do say that “throughout our nation’s history, millions of children have grown up in strong, grounded military families.”

The next page has “A Note to Adults,” which gives pointers on reading the book with children, whether they are military children (as they refer to as Champs) or civilian children, with links mentioned for the USO website (USO.org) or their own website (thelittlechamps.org).

There are seven parts to the book: 1) Meet the Little Champs; 2) Champ Challenges; 3) Operation Champ Chests; 4) Capture the Flags; 5) Mission I Am Me; 6) Goodbyes Are Not Forever; and 7) New Beginnings. There is a total of 56 pages of typical children’s spacing (a paragraph or two per page).

The storyline centers around five friends who meet at a military base and are a part of some sort of team on base. It never does say what kind of team; however, it lends an indication that it is some sort of intramural sports team on the base. The very beginning of the story has the main character, “Smiley,” saying they are a team on the base and, “We are called the Little Champs, because CHAMP stands for Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel. We sure like the way that sounds.” There are five children in the story (ages are not given): “Smiley” is a boy whose dad is a Commander in the Navy and Smiley is co-captain of the Little Champs. During their games his job is to make sure everyone plays by the rules. He says that he is nicknamed Smiley because he smiles “even when I am sad or worried or scared or crying. Not that I cry . . . much . . . in public, anyway.” “Gonzo” is the MVP of the team and his dad is a Staff Sergeant in the Army. His last name is Gonzales and “everyone in Gonzo’s family speaks more than one language.” (Here is one indication of age in the book – the illustration of his birthday cake has a big “10” on it.) The co-captain of the team is a girl named Angel Jones. Her nickname is “Lo” (short for “Halo”). Her dad is a Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps. She is an only child and very close to her parents. Kenney Nez is a boy known as “Oboe” because he loves music. His mom is a Major in the Air Force and his great-grandfather was in the Marine Corps as a Navajo Code Talker. Chrissy Campbell is nicknamed “Soupy” and her mother is a Senior Chief Petty Officer in the Coast Guard. The entire story revolves around these five kids as close friends who are different in many ways, but have so much in common.

The storyline is basically that they are close friends who face different situations and they are happy to have their friendship because they all know what it feels like to “be really lonely.” Gonzo’s father is scheduled to deploy for his third tour in a war zone and Gonzo gets angry about it. Lo’s dad is injured in combat and is being medically retired after coming home injured and she is scared. Smiley’s dad, the Commander, is being reassigned to the East Coast and he can’t understand why, and he “curled into a tight ball and cried myself to sleep. I was embarrassed when I had to change my bed sheets the next morning.”

They all meet for practice and none of them are happy or feel like playing, so they come up with a way to stay in touch in the future. They come up with the idea of creating “Champ Chests” – containers to hold special things — and each of them will bring something to give to the others to put inside the chests. First off, each of them makes five small flags to represent their military branch and gives one to each of the others. Then they decide to give each other something that represents the two best things about themself. So, each of them goes to a parent and asks what it is that makes them special. Parents respond with qualities including those of “patience” “assertiveness” “commitment” “perseverance” and “flexibility.” Of course when the children are asking their parents about their best qualities, the parents are not only listing the best two for each of them, but also having a conversation with the child about things like, “your flexibility . . . is something we rely on.” The children find things to put in each other’s chests which represent those qualities. For instance, Lo, whose injured father told her that her flexibility was important, gave each of her friends a container of silly putty.

After filling their Champ Chests, the friends play one last game of “Capture the Flag.” As they are doing so, three “new Champs appeared on the field.” Smiley closes the chapter by saying they were all facing new beginnings and the team would survive, with new players moving in to learn the team song and to sing the national anthem before each game and to become “the new Little Champs.” On the final pages, there is a picture of a moving van. Smiley has moved and is making friends at the new base and scouting out kids to form a new team. He says he has learned that “life as a Champ comes with both challenges and benefits. It’s what makes me ‘me!’ I live in many exciting places and experience lots of cultures; I make new friends, scattered all over the world; and, because of Dad’s service, I am proud to say my family helps keep America safe and strong…   As we say in the Navy, ‘Fair winds and following seas.’”

The back inside cover of the book has the words to their song, “The Little Champs’ Song.”

Throughout the book there are highlighted terms for the civilian children, such as “Commander” “Navy” “Hooah” “Oorah” “Reserve” etc. There is even a reference to “BRAT” and “Navajo Code Talkers.” At the bottom of each page where these terms are used, there is a definition. Each branch of the military is introduced with the year it was founded. In explanation of the term, “BRAT,” they say: “term some military families use for a child of a Service member. The title ‘Brat’ is worn by many with pride, from generation to generation. Originally, Brat stood for British Regiment Attached Traveler.”

The illustrations of the book, produced by Walter Blackwell, a U.S. Navy Veteran and former President/CEO of the National Veterans Business Development Center, are quite good and not too childish nor cartoonish. They are appropriate for an eight – twelve year old audience.

So, after several readings of the book, my perspective on it has changed a bit. It is not as bad as I first thought. They do make an effort to educate civilians on terminology or bring to mind the fact that these children are facing life situations different from that of the average child – movements without much advance warning, leaving friends behind; a parent leaving for a war zone; a father coming home with severe injuries. I did read a few references at the bottom of the pages that I did not personally know, such as “Hooah” (an Army shout; I am a Navy Brat) and the references to when each branch of service was founded. I think that at least part of their motive for writing the book is with good intentions.

I think the story line is very simple and direct and accomplishes one main point – to say, “it will be okay,” and we can understand each other, with an emphasis on appreciating the children of military personnel. However, this is also limiting for them. Unless they want to revive one or two of the characters, they did not leave themselves any room for a second or third book in the series. I suspect it was written very quickly, almost like we would write for a freshman English class, without any serious thought for continuing stories or depth.

Perhaps most of us are really up in arms about them making an effort to change our heritage and our identity by trying to suggest “C.H.A.M.P.S” as a better term than “BRATS.” Many of us are rightfully questioning why on earth a major sponsor such as the USO would support tours of these ladies to present the “Operation Champs” program to military children around the world. I’m not sure, but how many U.S. locations have they presented their program to? Or, is it just much more interesting and rewarding to get to travel to Okinawa and Germany and Italy? So, we do, as a group have some good questions here.

As far as any real threat to changing common usage of the term “BRAT” to “C.H.A.M.P”? I don’t see any threat, especially from this book or their point of view. It is just not strong enough. The book is not memorable enough. It is almost like “assigned reading,” which is sad. I give credit for some effort on their part to see the value and uniqueness of a military childhood. I take points away for them stating that “Champs are children who ‘serve’ our country.” I, personally, do not like the wording when Smiley, the Commander’s son and main character of the book, talks about crying so much that he was embarrassed and had to change his sheets (I just believe the sense of fear of new beginnings and uncertainty could have been better represented). And I also disagree with military children being referred to as “heroes.” We honor our parents and Veterans as the true heroes.

So, that’s my $1.00’s worth folks.  And, as some of you say, “BRAT on! BRAT’s forever! A BRAT I will always be – A BRAT I’ll always stay!”

MAMF Note: This is an excerpted portion of a longer review.

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