Daniel Jose Older
June 30, 2015
Arthur A. Levine Books
Sierra Santiago is an artist. Her current project? Beautifying the development that was abandoned by scurrilous developers and would-be gentrifiers in Brooklyn. Sierra thinks a big, badass dragon would send a good message: don’t try to take our neighborhood from us. When her ailing grandfather and other family friends keep mysteriously encouraging her to finish the mural as soon as she can—and after those friends start to go missing—she knows something else is up. Soon, she meets Robbie, otherwise known as the arty Haitian kid from school, and he shows her that there’s another whole world that coexists alongside her: the Shadowshapers. These everyday people have the power to channel spirits of the dead into works of art and ask the spirits—the “shadows” that receive “shapes”—to help battle the forces of evil. Or, in this case, a power hungry white anthropologist who uses his excuse of academics to try and take over the Shadowshaper’s world.
This book touches on a lot of issues that we talk about here on WWAC and that a lot of intersectional feminists care deeply about: racism, sexism, consent, body positivity, gentrification, street harassment, and more. Older blends all of those issues seamlessly into the work. While you’re racing to figure out what will happen to Sierra’s friends and family, you’re learning more about the characters and the things they deal with every day. The characters complain about the older businesses in their neighborhood being pushed out by hipster coffee and pastry shops. The group of friends give Tee, one of Sierra’s besties, grief for not so secretly loving those places and tease her about being a fancy coffee snob. Sierra is both angered by and resigned to the street harassment she gets when she leaves her house. She stresses about her squishy stomach, but still loves herself; she calls out her aunt for being racist against Robbie and for frowning at Sierra’s “nappy” hair.
What I especially appreciate about this is that Older doesn’t make this into an “issue” novel. He doesn’t talk down or pander to teens about the problems and issues they face every day. Older works with young women in Brooklyn teaching writing and has said that he writes because, “Very few books are written directly to women of color, and of those even fewer are magical.” This just makes me so happy.
Finally, let’s take a look at the cover and discuss how amazing it is: the paint of Sierra’s murals mixing in with her beautiful, big hair. And the city skyline? Incredible. I love that it is clear that Sierra is 1) the main character, 2) a woman of color. and 3) powerful as fuck. It’s all amazing. I also really appreciated that the publisher didn’t make Sierra a silhouette on the cover. While it’s true that this is a trend for the last few years, especially for YA books, it’s also true that a lot of those silhouetted books are about characters of color. Just look at the Newbery awards this year—both The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson feature main characters of color, and both their books have silhouette covers. So, it’s incredible to be able to see Sierra’s beautiful and creative face, especially given the rarity of characters of color in fantasy books in general.
This is an incredible book about the power of young, people of color and of women in particular. Where others in her family refused to embrace their legacy and power, Sierra takes on the mantle of shadowshaper like a boss. If you’re looking for a great YA urban fantasy with diverse, interesting, and compelling characters, you’d be remiss to ignore this one.