The Land of Always Summer
A Brooklyn summer camp brings ancient myths back to life
Imagine a world where Gods and Goddesses come back to life, mythical quests are lived out during expeditions through an enchanted forest, and great battles occur that rival the Trojan War itself. For the 7-to-12-year olds who attend Camp Half-Blood — and the 12-to-14-year olds who participate in the newer Camp Jupiter, which started this year — these experiences are a living reality each summer in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.
“A lot of our kids come to us, as really passionate readers, or artists, or theatre people, and what we do is give them a world where they can be themselves,” says Crystal Bobb-Semple, the founder of both camps, which bring to life Greek and Roman mythological masterpieces like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the trials of Hercules and Jason and the Argonauts.
Camp Half-Blood was founded nine years ago by Bobb-Semple, who owned a bookstore in Brooklyn. Fans of author Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians young adult book series would ask her over and over again, “Is this real? Does this place exist? Can I go there?” After researching and discovering a similar camp based off the books in Texas, Bobb-Semple took matters into her own hands and created a world for the books to exist in nearby Prospect Park.
“I saw it as an opportunity to help extend the life and the value that they were having in enjoying the wonderful work that the author created,” Bobb-Semple says.
The camps have grown exponentially since their inaugural summer of 2010, from featuring only 20-to-30 kids that first year, to now welcoming 150 campers per week for nine, five-day sessions each summer. The parent organization, Plato Learning, operates multiple programs, including Camp Half-Blood North at Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan, the Double-Daring Camp for Girls, focused on empowering young girls, and an after-school program in local Brooklyn schools.
In response to demand from children who had outgrown Camp Half-Blood, Camp Jupiter for 11-to-14-year-olds was created this year.
“It’s phenomenal to see these kids grow each summer,” says Alex Tissiere, the Director of Camp Half-Blood. He says:
“The kids we get are really into stories and what used to be called ‘the geek culture’ or ‘nerd culture’ and here those kids are heroes just as much as anyone else. We bring those kids into our world and show them their own potential and they really thrive in that and take it in their own direction and become these incredible presences at camp.”
The Percy Jackson book series has been on the New York Times Children’s Series best seller list for 442 weeks. According to Mara Danoff, 20, the Columbia University Science Fiction and Fantasy Society Librarian, the series appeals to young readers because, “It’s a love letter to modern day American culture, but infuses it with so much mythology that kids can research and learn about.”
Featuring such titles as The Lightning Thief, Sea of Monsters, Titan’s Curse, and The Last Olympian — the books follow the fortunes of a teenager named Percy Jackson, who can’t seem to find his place in the world after being kicked out of school and has ADHD and dyslexia. But, as the son of both a mortal, Sally Jackson, and the Greek God, Poseidon, Percy realizes he is a demigod and is soon engaged in heroic undertakings.
“It meant a lot to me to read about a character, who struggled with things I personally had to deal with, going through all these adventures,” said Danoff, who experienced dyslexia as a 4th grader.
The counselors at both camps intuitively understand this popular aspect of the books, and have sought to create an environment where all campers are welcome while promoting skills like literacy and teamwork.
“We understand that literacy doesn’t just happen on a page,” says Bobb-Semple, who offers book suggestions to campers particularly captivated by Greek mythology or the Percy Jackson series, and holds weekly writing contests where campers create their own stories to share and act out.
“What we are doing is inspiring them to go deeper, and we’ll go as deep as they are willing to go, outdoors, at a summer camp.”
During each session, campers engage in a story — or myth — that features outdoor activities and team-building exercises, including treasure hunts, ranger training, sword fighting, and nature walks through the Park.
This year, the climax of the camp was a major battle in the Long Meadow of Prospect Park between the younger, Camp Half-Blood, the older, Camp Jupiter, and actors playing Greek Gods and creatures. Camp Jupiter made their own (foam) weapons, and children who didn’t want to fight performed other roles off the battle-field.
We spoke with Jennie Russianoff and Daniel Garcia, two camp counselors, about the battle and its rationale:
But aside from physical fun, there is also an educational component that expounds the value of democracy and the role history plays in forming the character of people and nations alike.
“We learn about history and we learn about the myths so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes,” says Tissiere, “the same characteristics, that brought down heroes in the past and we ask, ‘How do we avoid those?’”
At Camp Jupiter, 12-to-14-year olds hold elections. Timothy Ling, the Director of Camp Jupiter, says this ensures campers learn about Roman History and why it matters, as well as living in a representative democracy.
The camps are open to all kinds of children seeking to expand their imaginations and intellects, and has an especially strong audience from young female campers.
“The girls that come to Camp Half-Blood are a strong and powerful bunch,” says Bobb-Semple. “They might be a smaller number than the guys, but the girls who come they win, they are our sword champions, and we try to make sure in the stories we create that the girls are not marginalized.”
In some ways, the mission statement of the camps is founded on the core idea that no matter who you are, what your background is, or where you come from, for one week each summer you have the chance to engage in the adventure of a lifetime and discover the hero within.
“We believe that, yes, you do actually have this special inner ability that you didn’t know about,” states Tissiere. “So, come to this camp, train it, learn it, build it, and then do good in the world.”
Behind the scenes reporting with Brian and Maea:
Correction: September 14, 2017
This audio piece of this article misstates Timothy Ling’s role. He is the Director of Camp Jupiter, not a Camp counselor. An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the age group for Camp Half-Blood as 7–10 years-old; it is for 7–12 year-olds. It also stated that Crystal Bobb-Semple owned a Fantasy Bookstore. She owned a general bookstore.