Georgia McCoy is on the “At Risk” list at her school, with the words “financial/single parent – father/possible medical?” written next to her name. Jen Bryant’s verse novel begins when the school counselor gives Georgia a journal in which to record her “thoughts and feelings” and also for Georgia to write down what she might like to tell her mother, if she were alive. Pieces of Georgia is this journal, and through writing and developing her artistic talent, Georgia journeys towards a better understanding of herself, her art, her distant father and the mother she hardly had the chance to know.
Georgia is an artist like her mother was, but at the beginning of this story, she doesn’t really believe it. Then a gift arrives in the mail for Georgia, signed anonymous. It is a membership to the Brandywine River Museum, which houses many works by N.C. Wyeth and Andrew and James Wyeth. Georgia’s visits to the museum are transforming experiences. She teaches herself everything she can by her close observation of the Wyeths’ remarkable artwork. This is the beginning of greater change in the rest of Georgia’s life – at school, and in her friendships and family.
I hesitated for a moment before attaching the “poetry” tag to this book, since I cannot easily accept this one as poetry. Just because something has line breaks and looks like a poem doesn’t mean it is a poem. For me, a strong verse novel means that I must be able to remove many of the poems from the context of the story and still recognize in them the attributes of poetry. Bryant’s verses do not achieve this. I found the format distracting and contrived, as if the very fact of writing in verse gave the story more weight. I don’t think this was required. Georgia’s gentle and perceptive character, the poignancy of her situation, and the mysterious and powerful presence of N.C. Wyeth’s art, all give the story as much intensity and interest as could be hoped for, verses or not. It would have more natural and believable if the story had simply been offered in journal form, instead of free verse.
This aside, the parts of the story where Bryant describes the Wyeth paintings leap off the page. Georgia’s thoughts as she sees Wyeth’s work for the first time are so fresh and utterly honest, they made me want to rush off to the Art Gallery and stare at some paintings for an afternoon. I’m not sure how this novel would work as a read-aloud, but I can imagine it as a natural choice for Literature Circles focused around the theme of young artistic talent and self-discovery. I particularly like that Bryant suggests that art can be appreciated by ordinary people. Just about anyone can find power in art as long as you face it openly, without intimidation. A worthwhile read, especially for teens with artistic aspirations.