Review by Natasha Zippan
Puffin Canada, Penguin Random House, 7 January 2020
272 pages, $18.99 CAD, 978-0-735-26691-9
Ages 10+, Grades 5-7
Middle Grade, Contemporary Realism
I would love to be an artist one day. I’ve been taking drawing and painting lessons for years, not to mention devouring George’s weekly book selections. Ms. Crofton, our art teacher at The Mitch, says my paintings have “potential.” But all of these real artists have vision. They have their own strange ways of seeing the world and then putting it on canvas. Or on concrete, in Banksy’s case.
I don’t have that sort of vision.
George says no-one has vision when they’re thirteen, and I’ll discover mine one day. That seems doubtful. Especially when I look at all the things Banksy has to say.
Me and Banksy is the sort of book that I wish existed when I was younger, because I was as precocious as its protagonist. This middle-grade novel is smart, sophisticated, sardonic, and filled with modern art, social justice, and friendship. Dominica Rivers (or “Dom”) is a 13-year-old student at the Mitchell Academy (the “Mitch”), a private school for gifted, well-to-do youth and their obnoxiously affluent parents. Her glamorous grandma Georgina (AKA George), an art gallery owner, is her main parental figure; her mother is a somewhat absent single parent, perpetually preoccupied with her gourmet catering business.
When George gives Dominica a book about Banksy, the legendary and anonymous British street artist, Dom becomes enamoured with his unique form of art activism. At school, when embarrassing videos stolen from the Mitch’s newly-installed security system cameras pop up on the school’s student forums, Dom experiences cyber-bullying firsthand. The principle shuts the message boards down, but not before the damage is done; Dominica and two of her classmates are constantly ridiculed as a result, and one leaves school indefinitely. The school refuses to remove the cameras, so Dom and her comrades plan their quiet rebellion, culminating in a cloak-and-dagger Banksy-style protest at the school’s annual open house.
The main theme of this book, besides questioning authority, is friendship; the humour, camaraderie, and love between Dominica and her two best friends, Saanvi and Holden, is palpable. Me and Banksy also manages to characterize the innumerable social dramas of that age, along with budding romance. Its witticisms are at once deft and revealing, such as when the two girls attempt to explain Holden’s reticence to join in by chalking it up to an overscheduled childhood: “It’s kind of like a hunger strike, except he refuses activities instead of food.” The solidarity garnered by their scheme is truly heartwarming. By the end of the story, the trio have made friends with the most unlikely of classmates.
While the harms of passive engagement with technology are a common complaint these days, this book offers a different narrative, one in which its young protagonists have the ultimate agency through technology. The inclusion of text messaging, social media posts, blogging, and hacking make it very current, but all properly in service to the story. The author also injects just the right amount of fine art and cultural education into the story without being didactic; Dominica refers to people’s facial expressions in terms of colours such as “alizarin crimson” and “quinacridone magenta,” and uses the Foucauldian concept of the panopticon as a metaphor for the school’s draconian surveillance. Dom’s mother’s attempts at comforting Dom—not entirely nonexistent—come mostly in the form of such sophisticated fare as chocolate ganache, beurre blanc, and fig compote. It reminded me of the classic Newbery Medal winner From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for its engagement with the art world, updated for the pre-teen set.
Me and Banksy is an excellent example of smart, contemporary storytelling that entertains as it educates, with characters that you can’t help but root for. Banksy may be a man, woman, or collective, but whoever they are, they’re inspiring a new generation of artists to use their voices for truth.
Natasha Zippan is a graphic designer and art director who has gone back to school to study psychology and write smart stuff for kids and teens. She loves modern art, magical realism, and mythology. She is currently working on a MG adventure about sleep and dreams, and a YA novel about unicorns and spacetime.