Feature Article: Austin People
by Brittani Sonnenberg
Photographs by Leah Muse
Usually men who are “in touch with their nine-year-old selves” spend their lives eating Cheetos and playing video games. This guy started Austin’s most beloved literary camp and is making kids all over town fall in love with reading.
It’s Halloween Day and Topher Bradfield, the children’s out-reach coordinator and camp director for BookPeople, is not wearing a costume. This comes as something of a surprise, since Bradfield spends much of the summer dressed as an an-cient warrior. Other BookPeople people are wearing witch hats and goblin masks, but maybe if your work demands donning a helmet in the middle of a scorching Austin summer, you’re in-clined to skip Halloween outfits altogether.
Here’s another counter-intuitive insight about Topher Brad-field: he disliked reading as a child. “I loved comics and the bedtimes stories my mother read me, but I didn’t catch on to reading until middle school,” he tells me. “I was outgoing, but not a great student. I loved to draw. When I do school presentations now, and ask who likes to draw, everyone’s got their hands raised in the front row, where the little kids sit. But as you go back to the rows of older kids, very few hands go up. Creativity gets hammered out of us.”
Bradfield smiles. He has a gentle demeanor and an assertive gaze: the ideal combination of sweet and no-bullshit that kids love. “Something about my upbringing allowed [the creativity] to stick around with me,” Bradfield says. “I had wonderful teachers and my parents were supportive. I was the kind of kid who didn’t want to follow rules; in middle school, when I finally began to enjoy reading, I would devour everything on a subject in school except what we were assigned.”
When he was 11, Bradfield was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. A doctor told him that diabetics “don’t live as long as other people.” The effect was brutal. “I carried that with me for years,” Bradfield says. “It gave me a disposable feeling, and with that came a license for breaking rules.”
While Bradfield now looks back on that rebellious behavior as largely self-defeating, he admits that it came in handy when pursuing his idea of creating a camp based on a popular young adult (YA) series featuring 12-year old protagonist, Percy Jack-son. “When we started [Camp Half-Blood], another camp director told me [it] would never work. Then it kept working, and he said, ‘You’re kind of like Bugs Bunny when he runs off the cliff and gravity doesn’t apply.’”
Admittedly, the premise of the camps—inviting kids to step into the action-packed world of Rick Riordan’s series—present-ed major challenges. (Like: where the hell are you going to find chariots? Answer: pedicabs.) Bradfield’s brainchild embodied a fantasy that every reader, from five to ninety-five years old, intimately knows: the allure of a favorite book becoming real. Movies are air-conditioned approximations of this, where your neigh-bor’s loud popcorn chomping ruins the illusion. But at Bradfield’s Half-Blood camps, set in McKinney State Park, kids become demigods, and train in archery, chariot games and amulet art.
As a kid, Bradfield attended a camp specifically designed for diabetics. He loved it. “For years, I just wanted [my disease] to disappear. But at camp, I loved being around other kids who had the same set of experiences as I did. I felt at ease.”
“So what do you do when you get a bunch of introverted readers as campers?” I ask Bradfield, remembering my own tortured experience at Girl Scout camp. “Our campers run the gamut,” he says. “We seek out kids from at-risk communities, too: we give them scholarships and pair them with dedicat-ed readers. It elevates everyone’s experiences. It’s intense: we have things exploding. It’s charmingly military campish. We joke that it’s Sparta-Lite. There are lots of campers who are on the autistic spectrum. But they are often extremely helpful in the quests: other campers turn to them because they’re so attuned to all the minutiae, and they recognize patterns.”
The key to the camp, Bradfield says, lies in the imagination of the campers.
“It’s kind of a magical experience, an environmental theater piece. Our characters, and the world of the book, become like a second skin. It’s really immersive. We take it seriously, but we also try to weave in a lot of humor, charm and sappiness.”
The staff gleans something profound from the experience, too: 95 percent of them return every year, Bradfield says, even though they’re often working from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. for weeks on end. “I’ve been truly blessed to have BookPeople support this camp,” says Bradfield. “None of this happens without an army of staff.”
Bradfield applies a litmus test when making camp decisions: what would have thrilled 9-year-old Topher? (A question that would probably make all of us a lot happier if we applied it to our own lives.) Now the father of an eight-year-old himself, Bradfield says that his Camp Half-Blood work has strengthened his resolve to pre-serve his son’s creative abilities, and to empha-size that creativity and intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive. Given his son’s preferred Halloween plans for the night (staying in, watching a movie and playing games with his dad, rather than “performing for candy”), it sounds like Bradfield’s son is following in his father’s iconoclastic footsteps.
In addition to his work for BookPeople, Bradfield is penning his own YA book series. He’s workshopped first drafts with school kids. This willingness to listen to kids lies at the heart of what makes Bradfield’s summer camps such a wild success. And while the protagonist of the series that inspired the camp is a preteen boy, Half-Blood has slightly more female campers sign up each year. “I want [the campers] to be intellectual and cre-ative warriors,” he says, and from his heartfelt tone, and the attendees’ wild devotion to Half-Blood and Bradfield, you can tell that this statement is pure nonfiction.
Read more from the People Issue | December 2016