I am in love with Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older. This book busts expectations of Afro-Latino representations in YA fiction every possible way. I mean, just look at that cover. It is so refreshing to see a teen novel with a beautiful young woman who has dark skin and natural hair taking up the entire cover! And that’s all before you even glance at the first page.
Shadowshaper tells the story of Sierra Santiago, an artist recently turned muralist who has just started her 16th summer in Brooklyn, NY. Sierra is fantastic: she’s funny, her outfits are always described as amazing street fashion ensembles, and she has the coolest crew of friends. A little throw-away fact from the beginning of the book is that Sierra and her friends all go to Octavia Butler High School, you know, just a fictional high school named after the groundbreaking science fiction writer. I nearly lost it right there (seriously, I want to make tee shirts that say Octavia Butler High on them, please get at me if you want one too!). From her calm and classically-styled best friend Bennie, to their femme freestyling lyricist friend Izzy and her butch and skeptical girlfriend Tee – Sierra’s ensemble of friends are funny, talented, and dynamic. In all the passages where her squad was hanging out it felt authentic, and I honestly just loved spending time with them.
But Shadowshaper is not a realistic coming of age story, it’s an urban fantasy! One day as Sierra works on her mural, she realizes that other murals in the neighborhood are fading, fading really fast, and – crying sometimes…? But she must just be imagining that… When she stops home that night to change for a party her Abuelo won’t stop apologizing to her, but she brushes that off too, he hasn’t really been fully there for a few years now. She is forced to stop ignoring the strange things around her, however, when a zombified man crashes the party to try and find her. With the help of her dreamy classmate Robbie – a boy of Haitian descent who is such a prolific artist that everything from his clothing to the margins of his books are covered in his drawings – Sierra discovers that she is a “Shadowshaper”, a Caribbean mystic who can channel friendly spirits into her artwork.
Sierra may now understand she has magical powers, but now she has to figure out why zombies from her Abuelo’s old crew are after her, why evil spirits are turning her Abuelo’s friends into zombies in the first place, why shadowshaping magic is fading, and who the random white guy in the photo with her Abeulo’s crew back in the day is; and she still has to figure out how her powers actually work. Sierra and Robbie’s experimentation with their Shadowshaping is incredibly fun. They play hide and seek with shadowshaped chalk drawings in central park, and dance with Robbie’s murals inside an all-ages Méringue club.
On top of all the the daring and dangerous work Sierra has to do, it’s happening in a neighborhood that is constantly being taken away from her and her community. As Sierra walks to Bennie’s apartment she gets stared at by white gentrifiers as if she does not belong in this neighborhood, a neighborhood her best friend has lived in her whole life, that Sierra has been visiting just as long. There is a painful moment when Sierra realizes that because of the drastic changes in this neighborhood, that in a way, she doesn’t belong there anymore. There is also a scene where Sierra is being attacked by a spirit regular humans can’t see, and instead of getting help from the white people who live in the Brooklyn Brownstones they see her as a threat and call the police on her. The exploration of white people appropriating/stealing from/recolonizing from Brown and Black communities is a theme explored deeply and brilliantly in Shadowshaper, in more ways than one – I’d tell you more, but that would be a major spoiler.
Shadowshaper is a great read for high school students, or middle schoolers who have a high reading level. It is especially good for readers who love female-driven adventure stories. Or young readers who are interested in social justice themes but want a book to be thrilling at the same time. Or a reader that loves magic, especially if they don’t relate to all the small-town-white-kid fantasy out there. Or a reader who is very close to their family and friends and wants to read exciting books with main characters who also have strong communities. Or, actually music lovers, the author is also a musician and his passages about Méringue and Salsa-Thrash music totally take you there. I loved this book, it was thoroughly current, effortlessly diverse, and too fun and well written to put down; I cannot recommend it enough!
adapted from South Seattle Emerald