Reading Up, Down, and Just Reading


By Richard Van Camp

What I love most about Eden Robinson’s novel, Monkey Beach (2001) is it’s polished and marketed as serious CanLit (and it is! just look at the cover),and also marketed in a way that steers the audience from calling it Young Adult. It’s simply a great story that could have easily been marketed for the YA audience since it meets all the requirements: teen characters with no gratuitous sex, drug use, or violence. Sure there are snapshots of violence and elements of devastating horror, but the narrative is about a young Heiltsuk and Haisla woman, Lisamarie, finding her way in today’s world while accepting her power as a dreamer and as someone who is visited by voices in the forest and an imp that visits her at night, warning her about impending doom for her loved ones.

I was told years ago that the rule of thumb for marketing YA that is not so-called cross-over fiction (fiction where audiences cross from their usual area to another) is that youth will read up. Meaning: youth will read Clan of the Cave Bear, but adults won’t read Young Adult. (I think this is wrong; I read YA all the time. And I think it’s safe to say with the phenomena of Harry Potter and the Twilight series that all ages read books to see what the fuss is about.)

The power of Monkey Beach is the main narrator’s voice. Lisamarie was described as “spunky” by Maclean’s, but I think true is the right word. She’s a true teenager who is caught between the new ways and the old, the waking world and the spirit world. She’s a dreamer and a smoker. She’s bullied and she later becomes friends with the toughest kids in the village after deciding she won’t be a victim anymore. She loves her Gran and she loves her folks, yet she can’t wait to leave Kitamaat. She teases her brother, Jimmy, yet mourns his disappearance after the fishing boat he was on sinks. Her first major sexual experience is a flashback and the narrative tone does not stop to see if what she says is YA or Cross Over or CanLit of the highest regard—and her readers love her for it. I remember reading this book when it first came out in 2000 and thinking, “I know Lisamarie. I grew up with her. I was terrified of her in school because she was tough and moody. If she was having a good day, we were too. If she was upset about something—watch out!”

And can I just say that Lisamarie’s folks should win the Academy award for Best Supporting Actors. They are hilarious and in love. They have a history and they are living, breathing characters, and I love the scene where Lisamarie walks in on her mother being caressed by someone you’d never expect. (This is one of my favourite scenes in CanLit because I actually hyperventilated when I read it the first time and recently again, eleven years later. Wow!)

I love how YA literature is handling some of the toughest issues out there right now: there’s Right Behind You by Gail Giles. When Kip McFarland was nine years old, he purposely lit his seven-year-old neighbour, Bobby Clarke on fire, killing him. This novel deals with the why? And with a lifetime of guilt after this unforgettable opening scene. Same thing with Inside Out by Terry Trueman. What a brilliant premise for a short novel: a young boy with schizophrenia is waiting for his mother one day at the regular diner when it is held up by two brothers the same age as he is. And again with Deadly Loyalties by Jennifer Storm.  Blaise, a young Native girl in Manitoba, witnesses the death of her best friend and reluctantly enters a Native gang after running away from home.

I can’t imagine the pressure publishers, sales representatives, teacher librarians and marketing and design teams feel as they all try and work together to present titles as either YA or cross-over or just to be showcased in the fiction aisle along with Catcher in the Rye and Wagamese’s Dream Wheels.

Either way, the fun of being a book lover will always be a great reading experience—regardless of how a book is marketed. And Monkey Beach is a great read.

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Richard Van Camp

Richard Van Camp is most recently the author of The Moon of Letting Go. Previous titles include The Lesser Blessed, Angel Wing Splash Pattern, and the comic books Path of the Warrior and Kiss Me Deadly. A Dogrib (Tlicho) Dene from Fort Smith, NWT, Richard now lives in Edmonton.