Round II, Bracket V: Blood Water Paint vs. Dread Nation

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.

She chose paint.

By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.

He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.

I will show you
what a woman can do.

Blood, Water, Paint is historical fiction that reads like contemporary fiction, which could be a strength or a weakness depending on your perspective. Employing modern American English, it’s spare on period details and (other than the author’s note at the end) I don’t recall any dates being mentioned. For readers who might be turned off by a novel set in the 1600s, these are pluses. However, readers who aren’t somewhat familiar with Artemisia Gentileschi or Renaissance art may feel a bit lost.

McCullough chose to write primarily in verse, and so as I read I asked myself (as I do every time I read a novel in verse) whether this was the best choice. I think the poems work, often packing a raw, emotional power-punch. I also think that the strongest sections are the stories that Artemisia’s mother told about Susanna and Judith, which are written in prose. Apart from Artemisia, Judith and Susanna are the best-developed characters in the book. Artemisia’s relationships with these Biblical heroines (depending on which version of the Bible you read – you won’t find them in Hebrew or Protestant Bibles) are the closest she has to friendships. They comfort her in her darkest moments and ultimately inspire her to keep painting.

As a story about the artist’s life and work, Blood, Water, Paint is compelling but incomplete, and hopefully will inspire readers to research Gentileschi and her paintings further.

Recommended for:

For all the obvious reasons, I would offer Blood, Water, Paint to teens who are into art, history, law, feminism, social justice and any combination of these. I would also stealthily suggest it to teens I know who might find the religious subjects of Gentileschi’s paintings interesting and the story eye-opening; as well as teens who may be itching for a #metoo narrative but want to hide it for one reason or another. Any recommendation should be accompanied by trigger warnings for rape and torture.

Taglines: Artemesia paints her truth; in the aftermath of rape will she dare to speak it? ANDI will show you what a woman can do.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.

But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

If Dread Nation has a weakness, it is that the first few chapters feel a little formulaic to me. Justina Ireland combines effective world-building and character development to introduce sickle-wielding, etiquette-challenged Jane McKeene and her pretty, perfect arch nemesis, Katherine Devereaux. Handsome rogue Jackson Keats appears soon after, and I think I know where the story is taking this triangle until the girls attend an ill-fated demonstration of a new zombie vaccine. It’s then that Ireland begins to scrape the first layer of scales away from the eyes of her readers. Deeper revelations continue to shape the course of the story, revealing hidden facets to the characters while delivering sharp social commentary.

Dread Nation is eye-opening, and I had thought my eyes were open going in. I found myself constantly re-examining my own perception of our country’s past and present as I read. It’s one of the few series-openers that makes me want to read the whole series not just because I want to know how it ends, but because Ireland has something to say and I want to hear it. I won’t divulge any secrets, but the alternate world Ireland builds is much darker than I at first realized because it’s so close to our reality.

Recommended for:

I would hand Dread Nation to fans of action thrillers, dystopian stories, and zombie apocalypse stories; teens who are into history, social justice, and/or feminism; teens who are sick of love triangles; devourers of series, and teens in search of characters with depth. While teens looking for friendship stories might not be thinking, “zombie alterna-history action thriller,” I would suggest it to them as a stretch/reach choice. Jane and Katherine don’t always like each other, but they respect each other and I found the evolution of their relationship to be refreshing.

Tagline: North Fought South … Until the Dead Rose Up AND: Jane McKeene: Slashing Zombies & Smashing Patriarchies!

The Winner: dread Nation by justina Ireland

Full disclosure, Dread Nation has been one of my go-to booktalks this past year. Badass heroines vs. zombies is an easy sell, but I’ve also sold it on the depth of the characters, relationship dynamics, and abundance of social commentary. If I were to draw a Venn Diagram describing who I would suggest each book too, the circle representing Blood, Water, Paint would be swallowed by a larger circle for Dread Nation. I know it’s not the book for everyone, but I would love for everyone to read Dread Nation, and that’s why I’m picking it to move on.

Donna Block is a Teen Services Librarian at Niles-Maine District Library. She’s into scifi, fantasy, horror, graphic memoirs, and is always tired … so. very. tired. Follow the goings-on of the NMDL Teen Underground on their Instagram: @nmdlunderground.

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2 thoughts on “Round II, Bracket V: Blood Water Paint vs. Dread Nation

  1. Pingback: Round II, Bracket VI: Sadie vs. Monday’s Not Coming | So like YA know…

  2. Pingback: Round II, Bracket IV: Contagion vs. Dry | So like YA know…

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