When Valerie Dunsmore read a review for her debut novel, Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit she was taken aback.
It ran online in Kirkus Reviews, a long-standing and influential book review magazine headquartered in New York. The review itself was positive. In fact, it could be safely called a rave, with the writer praising Dunsmore’s debut as “disturbing, enchanting, and wise” and a “deeply resonant tale” that will “linger in the mind long after reading it.”
The surprising part for Dunsmore was how Kirkus categorized the novel, suggesting it was aimed at teens and classifying it as a young adult literary fiction title.
“My editors and I always thought it would be a crossover book; a fantasy or magical realism for adults with possible crossover to young adults,” says Dunsmore, in an interview from her home in Calgary. “But it’s been quite a diverse demographic that has connected to the book and reached out to me.”
In fact, one of the reasons Dunsmore decided to self-publish Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit was that she was told by mainstream publishing houses that her book was imaginative and well-written but hard to market because it didn’t fit comfortably into any marketable genre.
That said, the book does have some hallmarks of young adult literature, including a young protagonist. It deals with magic, which has been a staple of young adult fiction ever since the Harry Potter series, and like a lot of the genre, it is a decidedly dark tale as it grapples with issues such as abuse and mental illness.
So while Dunsmore may not have aimed her story directly at the young adult demographic, the book follows a larger trend in the genre by taking its young characters on a dark and often harrowing ride.
“I definitely think kids are dealing with a lot more subjects than I dealt with 30 years ago,” Dunsmore says. “They are worried about these things and they know about them. I guess I wanted to give readers a different way to look at things. So, possibly in the back of my mind, I was trying to put a different spin on mental health and healing and also trying to present a heroine story.”
The heroine is Lily, a 10-year-old girl who is forced into action when her violent father, Henry, comes back into her life. He moves Lily, her sister Rose and her mother from their idyllic forested home in British Columbia to a faceless suburb in Vancouver. Henry is an abusive alcoholic who is cruel to the girls and their mother, who suffers from mental health issues.
Lily begins to notice an ominous shadow following her mother that only she can see. She also discovers a book of dark spells and an affinity for magic. She soon decides to use it against her father. How dark is Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit? Well, the very first line is “Hating was power.”
As the story unfolds, Lily unearths dark secrets and past tragedies involving her parents.
“Through personal experience, mental health is a really important topic for me,” Dunsmore says. “I also really enjoy writing stories about a heroine’s journey. It’s a passion of mine. I wanted to bring those two topics together. That brought me to Lily. She appeared as a character to me. Lily copes with her mental health by using the tools that are available to her, which are imagination, magic, ancestral knowledge and nature. Throughout the process, I was inspired by the question: How do children with limited family support approach mental-health challenges?”
A mother of three, Dunsmore says her children helped her find the first-person voice of Lily.
She grew up in Vancouver and studied creative writing at Kwantlen College. She also earned a journalism degree at Grant MacEwan College and worked briefly as a reporter in Edmonton before taking a job in communications for Edmonton Police Service. She has lived in Calgary for the past 20 years and is currently working on her sophomore novel, a decades-spanning tale that also deals with mental illness and the now-shuttered Michener Centre in Red Deer.
For Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit, Dunsmore says she drew on her own struggles with depression and anxiety.
“I think it’s something that we have to freely speak about and share what’s working for each of us,” she says. “I think everyone’s path is different with mental health. There are some consistencies like finding a supportive environment and seeing your mental health as a gift, too. Maybe some of those challenges are making you contribute to the world in a way no one else thought of.”
Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit is now available.
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