All the Greys on Greene Streey by Laura Tucker, 320 pp, RL 4
All the Greys on Greene Street
by Laura Tucker
illustrations by Kelly Murphy
Purchased Audio Book narrated by
Taylor Meskimen and Allyson Ryan
All the Greys on Greene Street is an unforgettable middle grade novel about art and depression, seen through the eyes of sixth-grader Olympia, called Ollie, the child of two artists. Set in SoHo in 1981, Ollie begins telling her story a week after her father has left her and her mother, and the country. In France with his new French girlfriend, and leaving behind a cryptic note telling Ollie not to tell anyone where he has gone, Ollie struggles with her mother, who has not gotten out of bed since he left. As the narrator, we see what Ollie sees and feel what she feels. Ollie knows that her mother has had times like this before, and she realizes that asking for help could mean her mother is sent to the hospital, leaving Ollie without any parents. Sure that time will heal, Ollie makes do, leaning on Apollo. Apollo is the ugliest person Ollie has ever seen (due to acne scars, his face looks like it melted) but he also has the kindest eyes she has ever seen. She tells readers that once "you get over being scared to look at him, you can't stop: His face never gets boring like regular people's faces do." Apollo, also an artist with a talent for mixing colors who met Ollie's parents at art school, is her father's partner in an art restoration business. Sensitive to Ollie's state of near abandonment, Apollo takes her out to eat and buys her art supplies.
Like her parents, Ollie is an artist, too, preferring to sketch (with the Blackwing 602, THE pencil used by my amazing grandmother-in-law to to the NY Times crossword puzzle every day) in her notebook, often reflecting on tips and instruction her father has given her. When not working on her own drawings, Ollie is helping her friend Richard work on his Taxonomy, a complex, detailed collection of monsters and their traits, that he has been compiling. While Richard's obsession is with monsters, their friend Alex's is with movement. A kid who can't sit still, he is a blur of parkour moves across the city, from playground apparatus (like the Terrorpole, as named by the friends) to fire escapes. He is also the son of Linda, who went to art school with Ollie's parents and Apollo and is now a real estate agent and constantly on some kind of fad diet (like Atkins or Pritikin) and forces her kids to eat homemade granola bars and carob (flashbacks to my own childhood...) Ollie carefully shares - and hides - aspects of her post-dad life with her friends, convincing them that she is doing o.k. on her own and that her mom will get up soon. Adults orbit around her, her teacher, Linda, gallery owner and neighbor Joyce, Apollo and even Richard's mom, Dr. Charles, a college professor who almost coaxes Ollie to share, which is one of the things that I especially like about Parker's book, and what adds to the authentic 80s feel. When I was a kid, adults were a bigger part of the kid's books I read (think The Westing Game) and they were true adults doing adult stuff, not adults catering to kids. And ultimately, it is adults who help Ollie's mother, and ultimately Ollie herself.
Parker's story is filled with unforgettable details and it's hard not to list them all off here. Like Ollie's detailing of the importance of the A.I.R. signs - the Artist in Residence signs - that hang in the front windows and doors of warehouses (that may look abandoned) of SoHo letting firefighters know that, in the event of a fire, there are humans inside the building who need rescuing. This tidbit comes into play later in the story in an arc that I almost found and unnecessary device to bring the plot to resolution. Or when Ollie remembers a discussion she had with Dr. Charles about the model for the painting she was named after, Olympia by Edouard Manet. Thinking Dr. Charles is talking about Victorine Meurent, the controversial nude woman gazing directly at the viewer, Ollie learns that she is talking about the other woman in the painting, the maid whose name is Laure. Then there is the Head, a captivatingly carved wooden head brought to Ollie's father and Apollo for restoration work that goes missing along with her father. Did he in fact flee with it? Is it a stolen artifact? Who is the Belgian man who keeps calling and asking about it? Why is Ollie obsessed with sketching it? Parker weaves this mystery gently through her story, never veering too far away from Ollie and her mother and their struggles.
There is so much more I could write about All the Greys on Greene Street - like Ollie's shift from sketching only in pencil (greys) to using color. And the incredible descriptions of Apollo mixing colors - something I'm sure very few young readers know anything about. Not to mention Egyptian brown. And, while the audio book was magnificently acted, I do think I am going to have to buy this book, both to see Kelly Murphy's spot art and to read it and live it again. I am sure there is more to excavate from this stunning book!
Parker's author's note provides a frank discussion on depression along with resources, making this book both unique and important.