Author Tags: Fiction, Kidlit & Young Adult

Born in Nanaimo on June 12, 1970, Karen Rivers mostly grew up in Victoria. She studied writing courses at University of Victoria for two years, then received her B.A. in International Relations from UBC in 1991. She nearly completed a second degree in Physiology/Microbiology before dropping out. She had two babies instead. She started writing her first novel, The Tree Tattoo, when she moved back into my parents’ basement. It was eventually published in 1999, after Dream Water. Her books have been nominated for a wide range of literary awards, including the Silver Birch Award, the Stellar Book Award, the White Pine Award, and the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize.

Rivers is the author of several juvenile novels originally published by Orca Books, Canada: Dream Water (1999), Waiting To Dive (2000) and The Gold-diggers Club (2002). Waiting to Dive was reprinted by Scholastic, along with its sequel Barely Hanging On (previously published as The Gold-digger's Club) to accompany the final novel in her "Carly" sequel, The Actual Total Truth. These novels concern a young diving enthusiast named Carly who dreams of Olympic glory during her grade school years.

Rivers' two teen novels from Polestar Books are Surviving Sam (2001) -- shortlisted for the Sheila A. Egoff Children's Literature Prize -- and The Healing Time of Hickeys (Polestar 2003). The latter contains diary excerpts by 16-year-old Haley in her last year of high school when her hippie father is having unexplained troubles with the law. Haley's best friend won't speak to her, she can't get the attention of the boy she likes, she contracts chickenpox and she consults a Ouija board. Rivers’ dedication is a good summary for the novel “To all of you who are wearing some sort of turtleneck or weird scarf or unusual neck-wrapping hairstyle… and hoping that no one notices anything…. Trust me, it’s not working.” The hypochondriac Haley hopes for TGYML (The Greatest Year of My Life) but as her diary reveals, with Bridget Jones-like candour, it’s possible she’s dying of cat scratch fever while a running tally clocks sightings of JT, the good-smelling, big-handed boy who’s ignored her for three years, and rates her hair orange and too short to cover hickeys.

Following on the neck of Healing Time of Hickeys, Rivers’ The Cure for Crushes (And Other Deadly Plagues) (2005) once again usurps the journal of Haley Andromeda Harmony. As obsessive as Bridget Jones in recording and tallying her daily ups and downs, 17-year-old Haley-the-hypochondriac chronicles her final months of high school. Hair loss, brain tumors and a rash of other internet-researched symptoms continue to afflict her. Dad moves his MYG (Much Younger Girlfriend) in with them. There’s the bikini-clad bungee-jumping. And, it turns out, having a boyfriend is no cure for crushes on other boys. Inspired by the request of Rivers’ mother for a book where “no one dies,” Rivers has rendered a heroine who is ever hopeful it will be TGYML2 (The Greatest Year of My Life, Part 2).

Rivers' first novel for adults, The Tree Tattoo (Cormorant, 1999), describes a girl's love for a much older man, "a love that grows like an abscess." A huge tree tattooed on her back is symbolic of someone rooted in intense desire. The two lovers take a vacation, oblivious to the family wreckage they have engendered, as a cancer spreads in the girl's body.

What is Real (Orca, 2011) is about a star basketball player named Dex whose parents have split up. Dex returns to his small hometown to care for his wheelchair-bound, suicidal father who has given up defending marijuana growers in his law practice - and 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…the girl-of-his-dreams…and the crop circle.

In Karen Rivers' The Girl in the Well is Me (Dancing Cat Books $12.95), an exploration of bullying for middle grade readers, a new girl to the neighbourbood, Kammie Summers, accidentally disappears down a well as the result of an initiation ritual for a club whose three popular members don't want her to join. They know she's down there but they torment her by failing to tell anyone. While the eleven-year-old narrator is trapped in claustrophobic peril from the outset, waiting to be rescued--or not--Rivers blends humour with seriousness to explore all the reasons for Kammie's distress in Nowheresville, Texas (her term). Kammie reviews shameful events in her family's history, most notably her father's trespasses. “I wonder if heaven is real?" she thinks. "I hope so. If it’s not, this whole life thing is going to have felt like a major ripoff.” Reviewed by the New York Times in March of 2016, The Girl in the Well is Karen Rivers' 16th book since 1999, published simultaneously with another novel, Before We Go Extinct (FSG), for younger readers.


Canada: Dream Water (1999)
The Tree Tattoo (Cormorant, 1999)
Waiting To Dive (Orca 2000; Scholastic 2007)
Surviving Sam (2001)
The Gold-diggers Club (Orca 2002)
The Healing Time of Hickeys (Polestar 2003)
The Cure for Crushes (And Other Deadly Plagues) (Raincoast, 2005, $11.95) 1-55192-779-9.
Barely Hanging On (Scholastic 2007)
The Actual Total Truth (Scholastic 2007)
X in Flight (Raincoast $11.95) 1-55192-982-1 2007
Y in the Shadows (Raincoast 2008) 978-1551929729
What Z Sees (Raincoast 2008) 978-1551929705
What is Real (Orca, 2011) 9781554693566 $12.95
The Encyclopedia of Me (Scholastic, 2012) 978-0-545-31028-4 $16.99
Finding Ruby Starling (Scholastic 2014) $18.95 978-0-545-53479-6
The Girl in the Well is Me (Dancing Cat Books 2016) $12.95 9781770864641
Before We Go Extinct (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2016)
Love, Ish (Dancing Cat Books 2017) $12.95 978-1-77086-492-4

[BCBW 2017] "Kidlit" "Fiction"

Waiting to Dive

In Waiting to Dive, Karen Rivers of Orca has written her second juvenile novel about the aftermath of pain and tragedy. This time a 15-year-old has barely recovered from a brain aneurysm.


The Tree Tattoo (Cormorant $21.95)

An unnamed girl with a tree tattoo on her back has an incendiary relationship with a much older married man in The Tree Tattoo (Cormorant $21.95) by Victoria’s Karen Rivers. Rivers has also released her first young adult novel, Dream Water (Orca 18.95) in which two teens overcome childhood and adolescent traumas.

Tattoo 1-89651-16-3
Dream 1-55143-160-2


What is Real
Review (2011)

by Laurie Neale

Reality is hard enough to find and understand when you’re a teenager, but 17-year-old Dexter Pratt’s life is more complicated than most. His parents divorced when he was young, his father attempted suicide, and his beloved stepbrother died of heroine overdose—or did he?

Addicted to the pot that he and his wheelchair-bound father, an ex-lawyer, grow in their farmhouse basement, Dex tries to navigate his way toward reality in Karen River’s YA novel, What is Real?

One of the most compelling aspects of this novel is that, just like Dex, the reader cannot fully decipher what is real. The book is written from Dex's point of view, and since Dex cannot grasp reality, the reader cannot either.

What is real? Can you really trust your memory's account of the past? Can the nerve impulses that bombard your brain with raw sensory data be trusted, and can your brain be trusted to properly interpret these signals? And most of all, do you want it to?

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, submerged in Dex’s thought patterns, as clueless as Dex in his search for reality.

Dex’s character is layered and convoluted. At the beginning of the book, you believe what he's telling you about his life. You meet him in the middle of a movie about his life in which he is the director. His only problem is that he has forgotten what the script is about.

Halfway through the story, you are no longer sure Dex can be trusted. He knows stuff that he can't—or won't—admit. You discover Dex has been withholding information from both you and his conscious self. He simultaneously searches for reality and obscures it, editing and re-editing his history like a filmmaker editing the final cut.

It’s difficult to put down What is Real—literally—because we want Dex to discover the truth so we can, too. We search and question with him. We want to find out if Olivia is real, if aliens did create those crop circles, if Our Joe is really a pedophile, or if it’s all part of Dex's suppressed, drug-induced imagination.

Ultimately, What is Real deals with the challenges of being a teenager and the difficulty of sorting through emotions, grappling with truth, and losing your innocent views of the world.

Karen 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.

And, disturbing, she effectively reveals how sometimes living in reality isn't actually as desirable as living a lie.

[Laurie Neale is with the Print Futures program at Douglas College.]