A variety of scientific studies have proposed that scent is a powerful trigger for memory, and for me, that has certainly been true. Cinnamon and ginger will always kindle the warm anticipation associated with my family’s Christmas cookie baking. Similarly, there’s a particular combination of musky hairspray, sweat, & dust that immediately brings back the nerves and adrenaline of theatrical performances. And finally, the smell of fresh drawing paper, pencil shavings, and paint fumes will always be thrilling and soothing for me. Why? Because those scents symbolize a key aspect of my adolescent identity: being an artist.
By high school, art was embedded into my daily life. I took classes at school and at a local art studio, where I also worked as a teaching assistant for a couple hours every Saturday. I doodled during play practices and spent hours agonizing over pieces for local shows. When I drew, my intense focus could be alternatively relaxing, exciting, or frustrating–especially if the piece wasn’t working out. However, it was always a transporting experience–a time to escape my life and be more present in myself.
Accordingly, I’m always keen to find stories that explore and celebrate the varied roles of visual art in the lives of young adults. And as March is Youth Art Month, it seems like the perfect time to share some novels featuring young artists.
Page by Paige – Laura Lee Gulledge (2012 Great Graphic Novels for Teens) When her family moves from Virginia to Brooklyn, Paige’s only friend and solace is her trusty sketchbook. Through her drawings, Paige can be her adventurous, clever artist self– but taking that identity into the big, overwhelming world is a whole different story. Spanning her first eight months in New York, Paige’s journey of new friendships, tentative romance, and growing artistic confidence unfurls through imaginative & organic images.
Graffiti Moon – Cath Crowley (2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults) Senior year is finally over and Lucy can think of no better way to celebrate than to track down Shadow, the mysterious and talented graffiti artist whose gorgeous walls inspire and intrigue her. Lucy just knows that she and someone who paints like Shadow could have a real connection. She definitely doesn’t want to waste the night with Ed, the quiet guy with whom she shared the most awkward first date in history in a few years ago. But over the course of one night wandering through the city in search of Shadow, Lucy and Ed discover an unexpected network of secrets, memory, art, passion, and fear pulling them together.
The Disenchantments – Nina LaCour (2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults) It’s the summer after high school and anything feels possible. Colby and his best friend Bev are finally fulfilling their pact to hit the road after graduation: first, on a rambling, low budget tour with Bev’s passionate (if somewhat untalented) band The Disenchantments and then, onto Europe for a year of art, travel, and freedom. But mere hours into the trip, Bev drops a bombshell: she’s decided to abandon their plans and go to art school. Now, in between gigs in dingy basements and long hours in his uncle’s beloved VW van, Colby must figure out what’s next–for his post-high school life, for his fraught relationship with Bev, and for his own artistic identity.
The Summer Prince – Alaya Dawn Johnson Four hundred years after nuclear war devastated the earth and a plague nearly decimated the male population, the isolated pyramid city of Palmares Tres thrives atop the ruins of Brazil. Sixteen-year-old artist June and her best friend Gil thrill as the Queen selects her newest Summer Kingâ€”her male consort until the year’s end when he will be sacrificed to ensure the city’s prosperity and confirm her rule. Charismatic Enki, however, turns out to be much more than the traditional temporary celebrity. June becomes his secret collaborator in a series of provocative public art projectsâ€”and watches helplessly as he and Gil fall in love. June’s rebellious art finally finds a focus as Enki shows her the dark underside of their shining city.
Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys (2012 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults; 2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults; 2012 Morris Award Finalist) On June 14th, 1941, strangers knocked on the door of her family’s house–and changed Lina’s life forever. Like many Lithuanian citizens, Lina and her family were arrested and exiled to forced labor camps in Siberia by Stalin’s invading soldiers. Through starvation, cold, exhaustion, fear, and disease, Lina uses her artistic abilities to cope, drawing out scenes from her experiences with her mother and little brother to pass through fellow prisoners in hope of sending a message to her father in another camp. Through her drawings, Lina maintains her identity–while leveraging her artistic skills to work for her freedom.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie (2008 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults; 2010 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) Junior is a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to get his chance at a life beyond the rez, Junior transfers to an all-white high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. While he slowly finds some kind of place at his new school, his old friends view him as a traitor. Meanwhile, his family faces the challenges of alcoholism, depression, poverty, and tragic loss. With humor and heartbreaking honesty, Junior attempts to navigate life between two very different worlds.
Speak – Laurie Halse Anderson (2000 Best Books for Young Adults; 2000 Printz Honor Book; 2000 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers) High school is an unforgiving hierarchy and it’s incredibly easy to end up at the bottom. The police broke up a big summer party and everyone knows that freshman Melinda Sordino made the call that got them busted. But only Melinda knows why she called 911â€”and, unable to talk about that night, she’s pretty much stopped speaking since. As Melinda regains her voice and seeks justice for the painful events of the summer, she finds unexpected strength and healing in her art class.
-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride & Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler