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Here in Illinois, as schools were retooling their curriculum for pandemic-compatible learning this summer, the State Board of Education released a statement about art in their Priority Learning Standards: “We find that in this time of trauma, on a national scale that has not been experienced for decades, our current students need the arts as a means of self-expression and a way to process any emotions they are experiencing at this time.” The extent to which arts education in 2020 has been made accessible to students state- and nationwide has varied extensively—just as it does every year because of inequitable funding for education in general, especially in the arts. Yet in their declaration, the board clearly acknowledges something that arts educators, librarians, creatives, and youth advocates have always known: art is essential in times of trauma, and self-expression can be both personally healing and a healthy way to express the world around us.In striving to change their world, some teens will take to the streets in protest. Others will craft pithy and persuasive content for social media platforms. But many more will find their way to understanding and advocacy quietly, privately, and artistically. It’s been a generation since Melinda Sordino drew that tree over and over again in Laurie Halse Andersen’s Speak, struggling to make sense of her rape and find a way forward, and since Ariel Schrag first began chronicling her teen years in graphic novels, created in near real time, coming to a greater understanding of her queerness and herself. Through her work, she emboldened teens of the past and present to examine their own lives and selves. Young creatives in fiction, as in life, are still alchemizing their experiences into powerful expressions in both private and public forums.
Coping through Art: Recent Books for Teens
On the Come Up. By Angie Thomas. 2019. 464p. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray (9780062498564). Gr. 9–12.
Bri, a 16-year-old Black art-school student, uses rap to process her experiences, including the harassment she suffered at the hands of security officers. Her rap goes viral, and she finds that once her art is in the public eye, she needs to reexamine and readjust her creative expression and the motivation behind her rapping.
The Poet X. By Elizabeth Acevedo. 2018. 368p. HarperTeen (9780062662804). Gr. 9–12.
Pouring her hopes, dreams, observations, and pain into her poetry journals, Dominican American Xiomara does what many teens do: writes through her life to understand it. In joining her school’s slam-poetry club, she gains external validation and the strength to claim that she is a poet. The author’s reading of the audiobook, also from Harper, brings the resonance and rhythm to Xiomara’s words.
Punching the Air. By Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam. 2020. 400p. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray (9780062996480). Gr. 9–12.
Amal, a Black teen jailed for a fistfight in which the white participants were exempt from punishment, finds his voice, solace, power, and freedom through his painting. Coauthor Salaam, wrongfully incarcerated as a teen, is now a prison-reform activist, an art-imitating-life connection that will resonate with savvy teens. Another of Zoboi’s novels for teens, Pride (2018), features Afro-Latina Zuri Benitez, who also uses poetry to process the world around her.
Rani Patel in Full Effect. By Sonia Patel. 2016. 224p. Cinco Puntos (9781941026496). Gr. 9–12.
In Hawaii, Indian American Rani is a survivor of sexual trauma, and she connects with music, finding her voice in a hip-hop crew. Rani’s internal narrative is bold and emotional and peppered with her lines as she uses hip-hop to express her experiences and feelings.
You’re Welcome, Universe. By Whitney Gardner. Illus. by the author. 2017. 304p. Knopf (9780399551413). Gr. 8–10.
Using graffiti art to right the wrong of a sexual slur painted on the wall of her school for the Deaf gets Indian American Julia expelled, but she doesn’t quit using her graffiti art to improve the world around her. When someone begins to deliberately mess with her art, she becomes even more determined.
Potential: The High School Comics Chronicles of Ariel Schrag. By Ariel Schrag. Illus. by the author. 2008. 232p. Touchstone (9781416552359). Adult. 741.5.
Pride: A Pride and Prejudice Remix. By Ibi Zoboi. 2018. 304p. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray (9780062564047). Gr. 9–12.
Speak: 20th Anniversary Edition. By Laurie Halse Anderson. 2019. 224p. Square Fish (9781250302359). Gr. 8–12.
Rise Up! The Art of Protest. By Jo Rippon. 2020. 64p. Charlesbridge (9781623541507). Gr. 4–7. 322.4.
Teenage Rebels: Successful High School Activists from the Little Rock 9 to the Class of Tomorrow. By Dawn Barrett. 2015. 160p. Microcosm (9781621061373). Gr. 6–9.
This Is What I Know about Art. By Kimberly Drew. Illus. by Ashley Lukashevsky. 2020. 64p. Penguin Workshop (9780593095188). Gr. 7–12. 701.
Heather Booth is a Booklist editor and teen services librarian.
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