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Young Adult Fiction Drugs, Alcohol, Substance Abuse

What Is Real

by (author) Karen Rivers

Orca Book Publishers
Initial publish date
May 2011
Drugs, Alcohol, Substance Abuse, Coming of Age, General (see also headings under Social Themes)
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    May 2011
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2011
    List Price

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Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels

  • Age: 12
  • Grade: 8 to 12
  • Reading age: 12


Dex Pratt’s life has been turned upside down. His parents have divorced and his mother has remarried. When his father attempts suicide and fails, Dex returns to their small town to care for him. But he’s not prepared for how much everything has changed. Gone are the nice house, new cars, fancy bikes and other toys. Now he and his wheelchair-bound dad live in a rotting rented house at the back of a cornfield. And, worse, his father has given up defending marijuana growers in his law practice and has become one himself.
Unable to cope, Dex begins smoking himself into a state of surrealism. He begins to lose touch with what is real and what he is imagining. And then there are the aliens...and the girl-of-his-dreams...and the crop circle...

About the author

Karen Rivers is the author of numerous novels, mostly for young adults. Her books have been nominated for a number of awards, including the Sheila A. Egoff Children's Literature Prize and the Silver Birch Award. Karen has a BA in International Relations, which makes her an asset on any trivia team that emphasizes global politics in the late 1980s or early 1990s. As a lifelong hypochondriac, she once thought she'd be a doctor but realizes now that writing is a much more sensible career choice as it allows enough time to research symptoms on Google without having to actually go to medical school. Karen lives, reads and writes in a yellow house near the beach in Victoria, British Columbia, and can almost always be found online at

Karen Rivers' profile page


  • Commended, CCBC Best Books
  • Commended, Bank Street College of Education Best Children's Books of the Year
  • Short-listed, BC Book Prize - Sheila A. Egoff Children's Literature Prize nominee
  • Commended, Resource Links "The Year's Best"

Excerpt: What Is Real (by (author) Karen Rivers)

My life used to be a glass pitcher of white, pure, clean, delicious milk just bubbling over with goddamn wholesomeness. My entire life. My whole family was shiny and perfect, snipped right out of the stereotype catalogue: Mom, Dad, me, Chelsea, and our loyal dog, Glob...
    I'm seventeen now, and that's all gone. Seventeen doesn't sound old. But it is. Trust me.

Editorial Reviews

"An excellent example of what happens to a person's mind when they are on drugs."

Southwestern Ohio Young Adult Materials Review Group

"Rivers writes in a first-person present-tense narrative that is true to a young stoner's wild, muddled viewpoint...Even if teens skim over some passages, the story's central dramas will hold them: a lost kid, angry and loving, who cares for a disabled parent as he tries to block out secrets and lies."


"Rivers has a unique voice and uses this talent to create a complicated novel about the possible dangers of teen drug abuse....The novel's themes of expectation and change are very well handled."

Southwest Ohio and Neighboring Libraries (SWON)

"A tale of teenage angst exceptionally written in lyrical, hallucinogenic prose...Interspersed throughout the novel, Dex breaks from first-person narrative to a screenplay outline. This method of storytelling eloquently conveys the out-of-body distancing Dex employs to not only avoid pain, but to embrace and digest his roiling emotions...This novel satisfies as a realistic young adult title and soulful rendering of teenage foibles. It will appeal to reluctant readers."

Library Media Connection

"Dex is an appealing character...He has an essential honesty and a kind of self-awareness that causes the reader to empathize with his awful plight...We are sucked into Dex's quite extraordinary imagination which kind of takes us as the readers into a kind of unanticipated surrealism."

Resource Links

"An edgy and surreal teen read...Rivers challenges readers to think about their own perceptions of reality, to think about the validity and reliability of memory, and most of all, to ask the question that makes up the title of this book—what is real?"

"An intriguing read...The reader is left with interesting thoughts to ponder upon—what's real and what's a dream? Highly Recommended."

CM Magazine

"One of the most compelling aspects of this novel is that, just like Dex, the reader cannot fully decipher what is real...Rivers' prose is splintered and abrupt, just like human thoughts can be, and her writing style creates a sense of immediacy and confusion by throwing the reader into the middle of the action...Rivers has capably illuminated the teenage struggle to cope with life's challenges: losing loved-ones, being neglected, realizing you may not achieve your dreams and dealing with failure."

BC Bookworld

Librarian Reviews

What is Real

Dex Pratt’s life has been turned upside down. His parents have divorced, and his mother has remarried. When his father’s suicide attempt fails, Dex returns to their small town to care for him. But he isn’t prepared for what he finds when he returns. His father is living in a rented house at the back of a cornfield and he’s given up his law practice to become a marijuana grower. Unable to cope, Dex smokes himself into a state of surrealism and begins to lose touch with what is real and what he is imagining.

In her new contemporary novel for young adults, Karen Rivers has created a fascinating and disturbing character in her narrator Dex. The story is told entirely from his point of view, and Dex often interrupts his narration with flashbacks shown to the reader as a film scene taking place entirely in his mind.

Dex is a complicated character. He’s smart, athletic and creative, but he’s also extremely angry at his family, himself and, generally, the world. He’s likeable, pitiable, frustrating and an unreliable teller of his own story. His narration takes on a stream-of-consciousness feel that will give readers the sense that he is rewriting his memories as he goes, in an attempt to create a fiction that he can live with. The lines between reality and fantasy have become so blurred for Dex that neither he nor the reader can be certain what is real.

The book is well-written, fascinating and difficult to put down, but it is an uncomfortable read. What Is Real asks difficult questions of the reader and challenges his/her perceptions of memory and reality. The use of drugs and frequent swearing, combined with the gritty and difficult subject matter, make this a story more appropriate for older teens.

Source: The Canadian Children's Bookcentre. Fall 2011. Volume 34 No. 4.

What is Real

Dex Pratt’s life used to be perfect, but since his parents got divorced and his dad attempted suicide, that’s no longer the case. When Dex returns to his small-town life to care for his wheelchair- bound father, he finds his dad has given up defending marijuana growers in court and has become one himself. Unable to cope, Dex turns to drugs and has a hard time differentiating between what is real and what is not.

Source: The Canadian Children’s Book Centre. Best Books for Kids & Teens. Fall, 2012.

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