Review: Graffiti Girl by Kelly Parra

30Dec09

Title: Graffiti Girl

Author: Kelly Parra

Publisher: MTV

Year published: 2007

Spoilers: Yes, many.

Recommended: This is a tough one. I think a younger reader (someone who’s actually in the YA bracket), especially one who’s hungry for Latino stories & protagonists, stories about artists, or unusual coming-of-age tales would enjoy this, but it really didn’t work for me, so I have a hard time endorsing it whole-heartedly.

I read quite a bit of YA. Most of it (fine, almost all of it) is speculative fiction, and my experience has been that the vast majority of what I’ve read has appeal beyond the target age range. Part of this may be because I get my recommendations from adults and one extremely precocious 16-year-old.

GRAFFITI GIRL is the first YA novel I’ve tackled that makes me feel like I’m reading “below my age.” It’s not a bad novel by any means. It has a lot going for it. The main character, Angel, is an interesting young woman. She’s an artist, not a great student, romantically inexperienced, and equal parts tough and insecure.

One of her most defining features is her pride in Latino culture, which is wonderful to see. I think that her unwavering pride and determination to incorporate her culture into her art is one of the great strengths of the book. However, many elements of Angel’s character often felt forced; we were told they existed, sometimes repeatedly, but they weren’t dramatized.

For instance, Angel has trouble in school. She’s struggling to keep her GPA up so that she can stay on the committee which is painting murals in several city parks. We know this because she tells us once or twice. However, other than leaving several situations to do schoolwork, we don’t see this struggle on the page. When Angel’s GPA drops and consequences suddenly arise, I felt it came out of nowhere; it was a plotline dropped until it was convenient.

In a similar vein, Angel is angry that her park, North Caesar, isn’t included on the list of parks to receive the mural. It’s in a poor Latino neighborhood and has been passed up for improvement before. This park is the most underused element in the book, and I believe if it had been handled with more grace and woven more tightly into the story, it could have provided a powerful centerpiece and symbol. In fact, the more I have thought about this book, the more I’ve realized that North Caesar is what makes or breaks this story for me. Sadly, it definitely breaks it in the story as it stands.

Angel visits North Caesar a couple times throughout the book, and we know that it is her favorite park; we know she’s disappointed that it isn’t on the list. What I initially found lacking was that parks are a community space. Angel says that she loves North Caesar because it belongs to her community, but we don’t see that community. There is one line about two boys sitting on one of the structures in the park, but otherwise Angel experiences North Caesar alone or with someone from outside the community. Her desire to improve it seems more connected to her personal wishes than her pride in her community.

The climax of the book is rather disjointed; it seems to have several small peaks. After I finished it I found myself scribbling down a version of events that would have united these peaks—and it all centered on North Caesar. Angel’s goal is to thrive as an artist, specifically a Latino artist, and to use her art to improve North Caesar for her community. So why does North Caesar vanish until the denouement? Instead, Angel goes with her graffiti writing crew to a rich neighborhood’s park and is pressured into joining them in “bombing” it. The scene plays on the tensions between the freedom she feels in doing graffiti art and her guilt at defacing public property that children use. I wish instead she’d ended up at North Caesar. I wish her decision to go along with the tagging was to make that mural she thought it deserved. I wish that her guilt came from backing away from her work and realizing that the rest of the crew hadn’t treated the park with the respect she had for it. Instead, it was a park that belonged to no one she knew, and the bulk of her worry was that she would get caught. What I felt should have been the scene on which the story turned faded in importance.

At the end of the story, Angel gets caught. She gets sentenced to community service for two years, and there are a few hints that she’s going to try to use the experience to finally improve the parks and use her graffiti art toward positive ends. I suppose the ending is meant to be optimistic, but I found it depressing. North Caesar gets her mural, but it’s because Angel’s maybe-boyfriend gets it added to the list. It’s not a direct result of her actions.

The plotlines wrapped up one by one, in a diffuse series events with no clear emotional high point. I still think North Caesar could have served as a wonderful unifying element, symbol and goal and climax, but instead it, like most of the potentially great pieces of this story, failed to come alive on the page.

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