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The Reading Quilt: The Lesser Blessed

A raw "coming of age" story.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As we can see from the onslaught of adult or violent video games with adult storylines and sexual innuendos, few companies that offer young adult entertainment self-censor. The young adult fiction world is no different. Parents may not like this advertising adage, but it doesn’t change the truth: Sex sells. In fact, sex sells most merchandise, from magazines to milk.

Publishing companies are not blind to the advertising frenzy created when controversy piques the collective curiosity. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the triad on which pop culture is built, is just one of the common controversial themes that makes the young adult novels fly off the shelves. Books that defy the “cancel culture” phenomenon are the same ones that make summer reading lists sizzle.

Although YA novels boldly promote books with controversial subjects like abortion, drugs, police brutality, and mail-order brides, schools do not shy away from including these titles in school and classroom libraries. A few popular, albeit widely controversial school-approved books are Julia Otsuka’s novel The Buddha in the Attic, Angie Thomas’s The Hate You Give, and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.

Each month, “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book that a teacher may use to spark conversations about culture and race, along with a learning activity that may help students understand human behavior. Using the acronym QUILT, we offer readers information about Quality of Writing, Universal theme, Imaginative plot, a mini-lesson plan, and Talking points that stem from the book’s premise.

This month’s selection is The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp.

Richard Van Camp was born Sept. 8, 1971, into the Dogrib (Tłı̨chǫ) Nation from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories in Canada. He found literary fame with his novel The Lesser Blessed, which was published in 1996 and adapted into a 2012 film directed by Anita Doron. This literary venture secured Van Camp’s spot as the first member of the Dogrib tribe to publish a novel. His second novel, Whistle, was published in 2015.

Van Camp, a graduate of the En’owkin International School of Writing, continued to refine his talents at the University of Victoria’s Creative Writing Program and the University of British Columbia’s Writing Program, where he earned a BFA and master’s degrees, respectively.

Quality of writing: The Lesser Blessed is a coming of age story that details the adventures of Larry Sole, a Dogrib teenager, and Johnny Beck, a suave antagonist who disrupts Larry’s world. Johnny and Larry, along with several other teens, revel in outrageous shenanigans in the small town of Fort Simmer, a fictional place that mirrors Van Camp’s real hometown. The author delights readers with poignant dialogue that is also raw and blush-worthy at times. Along with the dialogue that includes dialect and idiosyncratic phrases that sting, Van Camp’s descriptions of Fort Simmer and the local yokels are visceral, pulling you into a town where the culture of poverty is part of the plot.

Universal theme: The book, Van Camp’s debut novel, is chock full of themes, most of them taboo or not for the faint of heart. Larry Sole, the main character, is battling demons, including memories of a horrific accident, when Johnny Beck shows up. Stomping on Larry’s turf and flaunting sexual exploits with the girl Johnny is dating (in his head), topics like promiscuous sex, drugs, and parental incest drag the reader to face the prevailing theme: confronting your past is a hard, yet healthy way to heal.

Imaginative plot: Through episodic accounts of Fort Simmer life and urban legends, Larry and Johnny experience the fast track to adulthood while celebrating the death of innocence. Using a rock and roll soundtrack for readings to follow and offering salacious slang, Van Camp seems happy to serve a taste of the Dogrib life to his readers.

Lesson plan: A popular theme in young adult novels, the coming of age story helps young readers live vicariously through fictional characters. Young people need to learn how to keep themselves physically and mentally healthy. The World Health Organization provides helpful information as parents prepare their adolescent children for the next phase of their lives.

Talking points: The term “coming of age” is used to describe the transition a person experiences when they leave childhood and enter into adulthood. In many cultures, this transition is celebrated through various events.

  1. How does your culture celebrate the transition from childhood to adulthood?
  2. What event in your life signified your transition from childhood to adulthood?
  3. Why is adolescence such a critical time in a young person’s life?

Dr. Rachel Slaughter earned her doctoral degree in Cognitive Studies in Reading at Widener University. Her dissertation explores multicultural literature in private schools through the lens of Critical Pedagogy. Her new book titled “Turning the Page: The Ultimate Guide for Teachers to Multicultural Literature” will be published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2020. To contact her, email literacyuniversity@gmail.com. For other multicultural literary suggestions, follow her on Google Plus or go to literacyuniversity.org.

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