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An essay on trees wins Pip-Emma Binns, a daughter of the New York tenements, a trip to the summer retreat of the Penguins, an exclusive girls's camp headed by the snobby Cecelia Layton and sponsored by the icy spinster Miss Thornton and her assistant, Priscilla Adams. Pip-Emma's eccentric family drives to the train station in their WPA truck to bid her farewell, thus alienating her from all the girls except Janet Cooper, who befriends Pip-Emma on the train to camp. At camp, Cecelia and Letty Lou become Pip-Emma's tormentors, but Priscilla and her boyfriend Denis, the camp's athletic director, become her allies. Although Pip-Emma tames the wild sons of Tolio, the camp's handyman, the camp itself is a disappointment to her because she must make her own bed and perform other chores that are part of her routine at home. The snootiness of the Penguins and their refusal to include her in their activities also add to the little girl's unhappiness. However, Pip-Emma melts the icy reserve of Miss Thornton, and when Cecelia and the others vote to send her home, the sponsor vetoes the order. Discovering that her friend Janet has an unhappy home life, Pip-Emma writes Grandpa to prevent the divorce of Janet's parents by telling them that their daughter is ill. The Coopers rush to the camp, where they are treated by the sight of Janet winning a swimming race, all due to Pip-Emma's coaching. Meanwhile, Cecelia's father arrives at camp in response to his daughter's charge that Pip-Emma is abusing her. At these accusations, Pip-Emma tearfully leaves the camp, but Grandpa forces her to return, and Mr. Layton, learning the truth about his daughter's behavour, gives Cecelia a well-deserved spanking. Pip-Emma is then accepted by the other girls as a full-fledged Penguin and awarded a uniform.