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Power to the (Young) People

"When an author puts power in the hands of their young characters, the narrative potential is endless." 

Book Cover Sunsetter

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I have always been drawn to narratives that feature young protagonists and characters in key roles. Maybe it was because I found my younger years to be so formative, and so profound in the way they still influence my life (it’s when I decided I had to be a writer, after all), but there is something incredibly powerful and insightful about the perspective of youth in literature. When we’re young, everything feels bigger, cuts deeper, rings louder. And those experiences reverberate throughout the rest of our lives in the decisions we make as well as how we see the world. When an author puts power in the hands of their young characters, the narrative potential is endless.


Book Cover The Lesser Blessed

I’ll start with a book I’ve been teaching to my high school students for years, and one that I had the pleasure of being introduced to by an amazing instructor in my first year at the University of Alberta. The Lesser Blessed, by Richard Van Camp is the story of a Tłı̨chǫ teen Larry Sole, coming of age in the fictional northern town of Fort Simmer and attempting to reconcile with his family’s intergenerational trauma from Canada’s genocidal Residential School system. With its heavy metal references, recreational drug use and small town teen vernacular, it’s gritty, at times hilarious, and ultimately profound—everything you could want from a young person’s story. The novel opens: “I remember. It is the summer of my crucifixion. I try so hard to be pure; I take two baths a day.”


Book Cover The TRacey Fragments

Another book I came across around the same time is The Tracey Fragments, by Maureen Medved. The novel consists of vignettes—the "fragments"—which help the reader piece together 15-year-old Tracey Berkowitz’s search for her younger brother, Sonny, who’s come to believe that he’s a dog. As we reassemble the pieces of Tracey’s life, a story of great compassion is revealed, one that touches on themes of mental health and belonging. Now this is the stuff of adolescence. There’s a 2007 film adaptation by Bruce McDonald that was all kinds of cool as well.


Book Cover The Woo Woo

Speaking of mental health and belonging, I’d be remiss not to include The Woo Woo, by Lindsay Wong, a memoir that details the author’s roller coaster of an experience growing up in a Chinese immigrant family in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. This book is a darkly comedic and at times self-deprecating foray into the familial legacy of mental illness that so many of us carry with us in our lives. As the cover will tell you, it’s got hockey, drug raids, ghosts and demons, but it’s Wong’s childhood recollections of these events that reveal a truth that only young eyes can see.


Book Cover Dunk Tank

I was a poet before I was a novelist and so I’ve got to give some love to one of my favourite-ever Canadian poets, Kayla Czaga. Both her collections, For Your Safety Please Hold On and Dunk Tank, discuss the lives of young women and the impossible tightrope walk our culture and society push them to walk. The speakers in Czaga’s poems reach out for love again and again, asking to be seen for who they are and not who they fail to be. And as in all good poetry, the beauty is in the details—so pitch perfect, so meticulously assembled, you could have sworn you were there too as “Travis Lechner, lead screamer / of Occult Nosebleed, command[ed] / the tenth grade stoners to live real.”


Book Cover The Birth Yard

I could probably be accused of bias (for anyone who knows me) with this next inclusion, but Mallory Tater’s debut The Birth Yard is a tour de force of a novel that examines the fight for women’s reproductive rights through the story of young women fighting for their bodily autonomy (and their lives) under the oppressive authority of a remote and isolated cult. The protagonist, Sable Ursu, is sharp-witted, selfless and endlessly brave in the face of institutionalised misogyny and heart wrenching violence. This is a prime example of a Canadian author lending the power of story to her young characters in order to bring attention to one of our world’s most important human rights battles. It will command your attention from the first page.


Book Cover Bad Cree

Another debut that’s taking the literary world by storm is Jessica Johns’ Bad Cree—maybe you’ve heard of it? If you have, it’s for good reason. Investigating themes of family, identity and grief, Johns brings us an Indigenous supernatural horror that blurs the lines between dream and reality. The protagonist, Mackenzie, isn’t as young as some of the other characters on this list, but she must return to the places, relationships and memories of her not so distant youth to seek her truth. Did I mention there are crows? A murder of crows! And, of course, a prairie setting on Treaty 8 land that is near and dear to me.


Book Cover Greenwood

Michael Christie’s Greenwood may seem a liberal interpretation of our theme, but anyone who has read to multi-generational arboreal epic will know that at the core (pun intended) of this narrative is the youngest of all our characters, the newborn Willow Greenwood, who lends hope to a family without distinguishable roots, fighting for survival in a harsh and antagonistic world of environmental and capitalistic ruin. Christie’s novel teaches us that not only is there power in the future that young people represent, but also how the outer rings and tallest branches of our family trees form from the experiences of their most nascent members.


Book Cover How a Woman Becomes a Lake

Last but certainly not least, I’ll recommend Marjorie Celona’s How a Woman Becomes a Lake, which kicked off my most recent summer of amazing reading. This is a small town noir, with down-on-their-luck characters becoming entangled in a mystery that will consume their lives. Most importantly, it is ten year old Jesse that holds the key to it all. As much as we might sometimes write them off—this novel reminds us that young people have agency in the world, and their decisions have the power to transform lives as much as anyone else’s. It’s a story about the human potential to fail and to be redeemed, and it’s a page turner in the truest sense of the word.


Book Cover Sunsetter

Learn more about Sunsetter:

A fast-paced literary thriller that peels back the layers of small-town police corruption, drugs, and teen disillusionment to expose unlikely heroes and unexpected villains

When two teens, Dallan and Hannah, attend the opening night of the infamous Sunsetter rodeo, they find themselves entangled in the suspicious deaths of their two closest loved ones. Driven by loss, rage, and their gut instincts for justice, they channel their grief and confusion into uncovering the criminal truth about their small town of Perron, a prairie community that has been long deserted by industry, leaving a ghostly emptiness of abandoned gravel pits, golf courses, and storefronts. They soon discover that Perron—with its population of bored and discontented youth, as well as police officers who are only looking out for themselves—is the ideal place for a mysterious and omnipresent drug trade to flourish. Soon enough, Dallan and Hannah are being tailed by Deputy Arnason, who has been tasked with protecting the reputation of the local police, even as his conscience screams in protest with every move he makes.

Equal parts crime novel and literary fiction, Sunsetter is an unflinching story about the opioid crisis, teen isolation, police brutality, and the fickleness of late-stage capitalism.

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