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Life Is A Canvas: Teen Artists in YA Literature

By Jarrett Dapier

In each of the following YA novels, teen artists find solace, courage, hope, escape, understanding, even windows into a town's ghastly past through the creation of art. This list includes historical fiction, realistic fiction, and several deeply inventive books that, like great art, hammer many forms and influences into one dazzling, colorful whole that excavate the minds and souls of their subjects.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian

    2007 by Sherman Alexie

    Sherman Alexie's comic masterpiece (one of the most frequently banned YA books in the last 10 years) is the story of Junior, an aspiring cartoonist who leaves the Spokane Indian Reservation school where he's gone for years to attend an all-white high school in a nearby farm town. The book features hilarious cartoons by Ellen Forney throughout and Alexie's Junior is the kind of self-deprecating narrator whose observations will have you crying tears of sadness and laughter, sometimes at the same time. A modern YA classic.

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  • Draw the Dark

    2010 by Ilsa J Bick

    Christian has the disturbing ability to see into other people's minds. What he sees there he draws, in a sort of blacked-out fugue state—what he calls "the sideways place"—with uncanny accuracy. And the secrets about themselves that people see in his art can lead them to madness. When Christian paints what seems like just some crude graffiti on a rich man's barn outside his small Wisconsin town, he unwittingly sets off a series of events that expose the town's connection to a dark Nazi history. Bick's gloriously creepy, unique, and inventive novel is part historical fiction, part psycho-realism, part paranormal, and all "sideways place."

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  • Page by Paige

    2011 by Laura Lee Gulledge

    This sweet graphic novel is the story of Paige, a girl who finds herself adrift, anxious, and alone when her parents uproot their lives and move to New York. Her inner thoughts and emotions are conveyed to the reader through the pages of her notebook as she struggles to adapt to her new surroundings, bond with new friends, and come into her own as an artist. Gulledge's illustrations are appealing, the page layouts are constantly surprising, and her stream-like writing style pulls the reader into Paige's world.

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  • The First Part Last

    2003 by Angela Johnson

    Bobby, a 16-year-old graffiti artist and new father, struggles to be a good parent to his baby girl, Feather, while surviving high school. Author Angela Johnson wastes no words in this spare, moving portrait of love and the hardships faced by single teen parents. With the huge, taxing responsibility of caring for a baby on his hands, Bobby must set aside the artistic dreams he'd planned out for himself and grow up fast. The book features an unforgettable scene in which Bobby spends a day painting a mural that beautifully captures the transporting power of art.

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  • Still Life with Tornado

    2016 by A. S. King

    In each of her books, A.S. King uses the surreal, the unexpected, and the almost-paranormal on an otherwise realistic stage to disorient us in ways that pull us down deep into a character's pain. Still Life with Tornado is no exception. In it, talented 16-year old Sarah can no longer make art. She's stuck. Despondent, she begins skipping school and wandering her city where she begins to encounter herself—people who are actually her—at different ages in life. There's 9-year-old Sarah, 40-something Sarah, and more, each with a different point of view. Eventually, Sarah is guided by these (are they visions?) to uncover deep in her psyche, what happened in her family that made her brother disappear long ago. This is an incredibly creative, magnetic novel full of life, pulse, and trauma.

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  • Autobiography of My Dead Brother

    2010 by Walter Dean Myers

    Have you ever seen someone close to you wreck their life? How did you survive the pain of it? What did you do? This is the story of two best friends, Jesse and Rise, "blood brothers," whose paths in life diverge when Rise joins a gang and enters a life of violence and crime. To process his helplessness at watching his friend change, Jesse writes Rise's story, a blend of words, sketches, and comics that unveil Jesse's grief. Featuring art and comics by Christopher Myers, this is one of the late, great Walter Dean Myers' most inventive and original works.

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  • I'll Give You the Sun

    2014 by Jandy Nelson

    Twin brother and sister Noah and Jude were once like extensions of one another, but after a terrible incident rocks their world, they are constantly at odds. Told from the perspectives of Jude and Noah at different points in time, the story deals with love, grief, creative expression, transformation, and self-awareness. It is as funny as it is heart-wrenching and I am not exaggerating when I say that it is one of the best books I've read in a long time. (Review by Laurel Johnson)

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  • Shadowshaper

    2015 by Daniel José Older

    Do you like stories set in New York? Caribbean lore? A resourceful and talented heroine with amazing hair? Murals that come to life, warning of mayhem to come? A perfect blend of heritage, art, and the supernatural, this culturally rich novel is urban fantasy at its finest. It will leave you spellbound for days. (Review by Christine Goertz).

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  • A Mad, Wicked Folly

    2014 by Sharon Biggs

    “Why is it so absurd? I can illustrate as well as any man. These are modern times, and women are still treated as nothing but pretty dolls or lapdogs!”

    Vicky brings shame on her family in 1909 London when she poses nude in front of her art class. They seek to marry her off—to neutralize her—as quickly as possible, but Vicky's passionate desire to be an artist, independent, fierce, and true, won't allow it. This historical tale is written in brilliantly accessible period dialect, full of shrewd observations about art, and a passionate story about one girl's fight for women's rights at a time when to do so was to be met with hostility, venom, and isolation. Vicky is a fighter and her commitment to art and equality will inspire readers of all genders.

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  • Shark Girl

    2007 by Kelly L Bingham

    Imagine a glorious day at the beach. The sun is hot, the water a midnight blue. You ache for a swim. You run into the water. Now imagine that within minutes, your body will be torn apart by a vicious predator, your life changed forever. Kelly Bingham's novel-in-verse is the story of a teen girl who loses an arm in a shark attack and who must learn to live life anew. A gifted artist before the attack, she struggles to learn to draw with a prosthetic arm, complete daily tasks, and re-enter a high school world in which she now stands out as a freak. A novel of unforgettable poetry and powerful self-discovery.

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