Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Art of the YA Novel

In the past few months, I've read three YA novels that all happen to be about art, artists and self-expression, which I think is a great subject for teens.  And all of them also happen to have a strong sense of place.  Their settings are unusual and really come to life.

See What I See by Gloria Whelan  (HarperCollins, January 2011, for ages 12 and up)

Source:  Advanced reading copy from publisher

Synopsis (from the publisher): Kate Tapert sees the world around her in the paintings she adores.  Yet one place she never sees her life is in the work of the famous and reclusive artist Dalton Quinn -- her father, whom she hasn't seen in ten years.

Kate's own dreams of becoming an artist look like they're on the verge of coming true when she's offered a scholarship to art school in Detroit.   The only thing she needs is a place to stay.  Her father's house would be perfect, but when Kate shows up on his doorstep out of the blue, she has no idea what a life-altering decision that will turn out to be.

Why I liked it:  It's a quiet story, but one that blooms with possibilities.  Kate takes on what would be considered adult responsibilities, yet this book can be enjoyed by a 12-year-old. 

I don't think I've ever read a book set in Detroit before.  The sensory details are so perfect I could easily picture a city I've never seen.  In addition, this novel deals with some tough issues (cancer, divorce) in a thought-provoking and graceful way.

The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson (HarperCollins, May 2011, for ages 12 and up)

Source: advanced reading copy from publisher

Synopsis (from the publisher): Ginny Blackstone spent last summer traveling around Europe, following the tasks her aunt laid out in a series of letters before she died.  But when someone stole Ginny's backpack -- and the last little blue envelope inside -- the journey came to an abrupt end.  Months later, a mysterious boy contacts Ginny from London, saying he's found her bag.  Ginny heads overseas and gets caught up in a whole new adventure, filled with old friends, new loves, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  Ginny must hold on to her wits... and her heart.  This time, there are no instructions.

Why I liked it:  I adored 13 Little Blue Envelopes (HarperCollins, 2005) and was thrilled to learn there would be a sequel.  And I'm happy to report that the sequel is every bit as fun and romantic as the original.  I mean, who can resist a book about four teens racing around Europe on a scavenger hunt?  The dialogue is spot-on.  There's plenty of humor, a fast pace, and the settings really come alive.  Ginny goes from London to Paris to Amsterdam to Ireland in search of pieces that when put together form a highly unusual kind of art.  (Note that although this novel can stand alone, it's much more enjoyable if you've read the original book.)

My Not-So-Still Life by Liz Gallagher (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, May 2011, for ages 14 and up)

Source: advanced reading copy from the publisher

Synopsis (from the publisher):  Vanessa is wise beyond her years. She's never really fit in at school, where all the kids act and dress the same. She's an artist who expresses her talent in the wacky colors she dyes her hair, her makeup and clothes. She's working on her biggest art project, and counting the days until she's grown up and can really start living. That adult world seems closer when Vanessa gets her dream job at the art supply store, Palette, where she worships the couple who runs it, Oscar and Maye. And she's drawn to a mysterious guy named James, who leads her into new, sometimes risky situations. Is she ready for this world, or not?

Why I liked it:  Vanessa comes across as an actual teen, anxious to grow up and start her "real" life.  She's mature in some ways, and incredibly naive in others.  She makes some questionable choices, just like a real 16-year-old.  I love the way she wears a string around her wrist every day, with her color choice representing how she feels.  I loved the interaction with her family: her overworked Mom and her understanding Grampie.  Her interaction with her two best friends, Nick and Holly, also feels extremely realistic, especially when she tries to tell them what to do. Vanessa craves new experiences so much, she assumes her friends do too.

Just like the art in See What I See and The Last Little Blue Envelope, Vanessa's art is unusual.  It would spoil the novel for me to tell you what her big project is and how she expresses herself in a new way, but let's just say it fits in perfectly with the book's themes.
The best thing about this novel, besides the quirky character of Vanessa, is Seattle. The city really comes to life here, just as much as in The Opposite of Invisible, Liz Gallagher's first novel.  I've never been to Seattle, but after reading these novels, I feel I know the place.

Have you read any of these?  What did you think?

Come back tomorrow for an exclusive interview with Liz Gallagher, as she answers questions about the writing of My Not-So-Still Life and what she misses most about Pennsylvania!


  1. Thanks for sharing about these books. I hadn't heard about any of them, maybe because I don't read much realistic fiction. But they sound really good.

  2. Great reviews, Joanne. I will have to check these books out.

  3. Great reviews! The first book sounds right up my alley.

  4. Great reviews! I have 13 Little Blue Envelopes, but I haven't read it yet. I guess I better get moving. :-)

  5. Hi Natalie! Thanks. If you're reading a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, any of these books would be a nice change of pace.

    Hi Christine! Thanks for stopping by.

    Thanks, Steph. Glad it appeals to you.

    Ooo, Shannon, you've gotta read that book! It's so much fun!


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