A few months ago, I read an Advanced Readers Copy of Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley. I knew I wanted to write something about it because a) I really loved the experience of reading it, and b) it’s fresh. Seriously, to me it was like delicious minty gum. I pondered what to say about it, how to express that cool breeze it gave me.
In the story, Lucy has been pining for a mysterious street artist who goes by the moniker Shadow, even though she doesn’t even know what he looks like. Through Lucy’s descriptions of his work, and later in his own voice, we realize that Shadow is no punk tagging his name around town, but a true and thought-provoking artist very much like the real life virtuoso known as Banksy. (If you haven’t seen the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, check it out from your library immediately.)
Thinking about this aspect of the book brought on my aha! moment. It’s not only that the story centers around visual art (Lucy is herself a glass blowerâ€”how cool is that?), it’s how the book gives the reader the sense of catharsis that visual expression can give. It also emphasizes the passion that artists have for their own craft, and the love and appreciation they can feel for the work of others.
I started to think about artists in YA lit and three really good books popped into my headâ€”books where visual art helps the protagonist cope with a traumatic event and provides a vital outlet for expression. First, we must mention the now-classic-Printz-Honor-National-Book-Award-Finalist-made-into-a-movie-starring-Kristen-Stewart-must-read: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. What can we say about Melinda, but thank God for her art teacher, who helps her see through the trees. We wonder how she would’ve come through the other side if not for her art.
Hate List by Jennifer Brown (which was a 2010 Teens Top Ten title, and has made it on to two YALSA lists, including 2010 Best Books for Young Adults and 2012 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) has Valerie coping with the fact that her boyfriend has done the unthinkable: brought a gun to school and murdered several classmates. Naturally, because she loved Nick, she isn’t sure how much she had to do with the heinous act, and whether she can be blamed for it in some small way. As readers we understand that Valerie didn’t realize just how troubled Nick was, and we worry that she’ll never dig out from under the depths of fear, guilt, shame, and sadness to become a whole person again. Thankfully, she stumbles upon that ever-important role model who clears the way for a crucial expression and release to take place. In this case, an eccentric painting teacher encourages her to pursue abstract painting. Valerie relays what it’s like:
I had no thought running through my mind as I worked. I only knew my hands were moving and that with each punch through the canvas I felt an unidentifiable relief pour from me. It wasn’t a feeling I was seeking, but something that was being drawn from me.
I consider Happyface by Stephen Emond (whose newest book, Winter Town was nominated for 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults) a special treat. In it, we get to know a teen through his illustrated journal, complete with actual illustrations. Emond has crafted a novel out of scribbles, sketches, drawings, and hand writingâ€”it’s reminiscent of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but only in that the format is slightly similar. Our protagonist has endured recent tragedy and heartbreak, but longs to put on a â€œhappyfaceâ€ in order to cope and make friends at a new school. It’s so clear to us, however, that it’s his artworkâ€”ranging from lovely ink wash portraits to funny cartoonsâ€”is what really gets him through this trying time.
Art is one of those miracles of human life. For the beholder, it can be one of life’s pleasures. For the artist … well, there are infinite possibilities. Occasionally, our vast world of teen literature illustrates this fact and brings it to life on the page. I know there are more out there that I haven’t read. Any books featuring artists you found refreshing, lovely, or especially memorable for some reason? Tell me about it in the comments!
— Amy Pelman, currently reading Wildwood, by Colin Meloy, and Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley (of course!)