One of the most powerful and affirming things about humans is our capacity to create art—works created not for an express functional purpose, but for enjoyment, appreciation, and expression. Art gives us the means to voice our thoughts, opinions, and individuality, but it also gives us ways to cope with abstract ideas large and small. From existential questions to personal pain, art nurtures the soul and empowers us. Here are five YA novels in which art saves lives, both literally and figuratively.
Girl in Pieces, by Kathleen Glasgow
Charlotte Davis, called Charlie, has had a harrowing life. She has been homeless, neglected, and abused, and she’s all of 17 years old. Charlie carries the scars of her past—both physical and emotional—and struggles to surface from the turmoil of her pain. She’s in therapy, but Girl in Pieces doesn’t follow the simple, neat narrative of recovery. Recovery doesn’t start at rock bottom and steadily climb to the top. Recovery is an up-and-down process, where one is always course-correcting after setbacks. Charlie is an artist, but art is not the only piece she needs to make herself whole. Medication, therapy, and finding a community are also pieces she needs to fit together and arrange in her life, and one of the ways she is able to make sense of her circumstances is through drawing. Art is not a magic cure-all, but one of many ways to find healing.
I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson
Jandy Nelson first came onto the YA scene with her powerful debut, The Sky is Everywhere, wherein a grieving teenage girl struggles to come to terms with her sister’s unexpected death through poetry. Writing is a form of art, but Nelson turned her eye to visual art in her next novel, I’ll Give You the Sun. It’s also about siblings, fraternal twins Noah and Jude, both of whom are visual artists. The story is told from Noah’s POV at age 13, and Jude’s POV at age 16, and they’re both different people at each age. At 13, Noah’s prodigious drawing talent singles him out for acceptance in a prestigious art school, but at age 16, it’s Jude who’s attending the school. The mystery of what happened, what twisted their relationship and their family dynamic, and how they unravel and untangle themselves from the threads of artistic and sibling jealousy and admiration that bind them holds this book together. Both Jude and Noah express themselves through their art, but for vastly different reasons, and those reasons are both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.
Infandous, by Elana K. Arnold
Elana K. Arnold’s Infandous is a beautiful, almost dreamlike novel about Sephora Golding, a teenage girl who creates found-object sculptures. Sephora and her mother are incredibly close, and Sephora imagines her mother’s life and past through the lens of fairy tales, but the narrative she crafts for herself through her art tells a different story. There is “unspeakable shit” in Sephora’s past, and how she discovers and comes to terms with the ramifications this has on her life (and potentially her relationship with her mother) grips the reader until the twist is revealed. Sephora’s sculptures are a way for her to find a way to express her horror even before her mind can fully comprehend it, speaking to the power of art not just to heal, but to make sense of our world.
City of Glass, by Cassandra Clare
With Cassandra Clare, we move from art metaphorically saving lives to art literally saving the day. The Mortal Instruments series follows a group of young demon hunters in New York City called Shadowhunters, who rid the mundane world of an otherworldly menace. These urban warriors draw extra strength and power from drawing angelic runes over their body with a stele: signs for speed, agility, enhanced vision. In the first book in the series, artist Clary Fray discovers she is a Shadowhunter, and in the second book, she discovers she has the ability to create new runes—a gift that’s implied to be entwined with her drawing skills (among other things). In the third book in the trilogy, City of Glass, Clary creates new runes to help her ragtag band of underdogs defeat a major enemy, as well as save the life of her daylight-walking vampire best friend with the Sign of Cain, a mark that curses anyone who harms him with damage sevenfold. Art literally saving lives indeed.
Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older
This YA debut by Daniel José Older (author of adult fantasy series Bone Street Rumba) tells the story of Sierra Santiago, a teenage Brooklyn mural artist whose urban paintings mysteriously begin taking on a life of their own. Older creates a vibrant portrait of Sierra and her neighborhood, giving the reader a glimpse into the place tagging culture and graffiti art hold in communities of color. When the murals around Sierra’s neighborhood begin to fade and change in decidedly magical ways, she discovers from her abuelo that she is a shadowshaper: one who is able to able to call upon the spirits of the dead through art. Sierra must find Robbie, a graffiti artist, and work to finish her own wall mural and come into her powers as a shadowshaper before a malevolent enemy uses shadowshaping for his own ends. Sierra’s art literally saves the day, but it also is a wonderful affirmation of all that Sierra is as a person—an Afro-Latina in modern-day New York coming into her own voice and power.