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More than Paint by Numbers
I [redacted but it starts with F and is something Ed might say] love this book.
I actually started this post once before, and I had nice things to say, but I was being a bit dismissive. It’s “sweet and light,” I said. Ah, the perils of only reading a book once.
Then I started rereading, and realized that this is a quiet treasure.
<Insert usual spoiler caveats here. I’m gonna give stuff away, like the ending. Happily, I don’t think this is a book that depends on the reveal, so spoilers probably won’t ruin anything. Probably.>
Graffiti Moon is funny. Laugh-out-loud funny. Most of the laughs are in the dialogue, which fairly crackles. It’s realistic, smart, but not too Dawson’s Creek-y (see also: the conversation over at the Fault writeup). It’s got a hint of raunchiness, so there’s none of the glossing over teen sexuality that so often happens in books — and given the conversations I sometimes stumble onto, and my own memories of teenaged life, this is a major accuracy and authenticity point. And did I mention funny?
Most of all, the snappy, sharp, humor-laced dialogue brings the characters and their relationships to life, as in this exchange between Lucy (one of the primary narrative voices) and best friend Jazz:
“Luce, when we were in the street talking, Leo’s arm brushed my arm. I got static electricity down there.”
I can’t help laughing. “So go out with him. Tell me about it tomorrow.”
“I want to tell you about it while it’s happening.”
“He’ll probably think that’s weird,” I say.
In that one exchange, so much comes across. The genuine affection between these two friends. The well worn pattern of their interactions is clear: Jazz, more outspoken and slightly wilder, and Lucy, the understated, dry voice of reason. Lucy’s entire character is contained in this small conversation (not all in the bit I’ve quoted, though, but just read the book): her yearning, her tendency to hold back and wait, her thoughtfulness, her love for Jazz and her push-pull emotions about Ed.
The dialogue isn’t the whole of it. There’s some really lovely descriptive writing too. The words fairly dance. There’s a sense of rhythm in the sentence level writing that’s easy to zoom by, especially on round one, when the charms of the plot take over, but on a slower look the craft comes through. Lots of metaphorical language manages to both sound lovely and evoke places and action, like this ( at a party): “…a sea of couples that are slowly tattooing themselves all over each other.” In fact, most of Ed’s narrative (he’s the other primary voice) is filled with metaphor and poetry. There’s probably an argument that it can be over the top, but for an artist who has trouble reading (dyslexia), the image-laced way he thinks makes perfect sense.
The plot should, frankly, come across as trite. It’s the night after the last day of year 12. Lucy’s obsessed with a boy she’s never seen and falling for the boy she’s with; her friends are navigating similar moments of connection. All of them are looking for a place to belong even as they venture into the big world. We’ve all read or seen this before, the all-night adventure, that last wild moment of high school, the two people falling for each other while having slightly insane adventures. David Levithan did this beautifully in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and there was that movie with Ethan Hawke and Juliette Delpy (and I can’t believe that still lives somewhere in the recesses of my brain).
(Although in all fairness there’s an unexpected subplot of slightly menacing money-lending thugs which is both a bit disturbing and wonderfully bizarre. The bad guy once ate a cockroach, but he also sticks a compass through someone’s ear.)
Subplot notwithstanding,the point is that this is so very not a new story.
In Crowley’s treatment, it feels fresh. It may not be a new story for me, but it’s a new story for Lucy and Ed. More than that is that the novel is in fact more than that one primary story.
On top of the last night celebrations and longing for love and belonging, this is a story of grief. Lucy is a sweet, middle class girl and she brings humor and heart, sure. But Ed, dyslexic Ed with his amazing art that no one knows is his and his mother who had him at age 16 and is an amazing parent but can’t make ends quite meet — this is where the deeper notes play.
For two years, Ed has had a mentor and friend in Bert, the elderly owner of a paint store, but Bert died not too long before the novel takes place. Ed’s search for belonging is not just about romance; he is lost. Emotionally, morally, financially. And alongside him is Leo, Poet, whose poems make the third narrative voice and round out the minor notes of class discussion and of what it means to be and make as a boy-man from working class roots, what it means to be a man and be an artist. This is all very lightly drawn, but the thematic depth is there if you look.
And oh, the secondary characters. Especially the adults! Fully realized through just a few lines (one of the strengths of the writing is it’s economy: this is a short book with a lot skillfully and delicately squeezed in), supportive but hands off enough to not get in the way of the story, imperfect in believable ways but essentially good people, and so clearly influences on the teens, whether or not the teens can see it. As with the hints of sexuality treated frankly and matter-of-factly, this is something that comes across as totally real — there are lots of great parents out there, after all. Did I mention authenticity win?
And I haven’t even mentioned the art! Such beautiful descriptions of art and of process, and such respect for teens as creators. Really, there’s a lot to champion here, and romances that are grounded in reality hold a special place in my heart, although I recognize that touching my heart is in fact not a marker of literary excellence.
But for all of it’s charms, Graffiti Moon is a zero star book. Statistically speaking, it has no chance at the gold (and really, as much as I believe this a well-written, impressive sleeper, it’s not a book I would shortlist for the winner, because I already have the gold assigned). On the other hand, it’s Australian, which speaks well to its chances.
So what do you think? Serious contenda or fly by night delight? (See what I did there? It happens in one night, and I said night? Yeah, I’ve still got it.)
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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