Daniel José Older
Arthur A. Levine Books
Release Date:  June 30, 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-59161-4

I am not a teenager (nowhere near).  I am not Puerto Rican (or even a person of color).  I am not a native New Yorker (been there quite a few times, but never longer than a week; I grew up in small-town Iowa).  I am female, but that is a rather tenuous connection to the main character of Daniel José Older’s YA novel, Shadowshaper.

But I do think I can recognize when something is authentic, even if I cannot claim any authority over it – and the voice and feel of the kids in this book are keen and sharp and fresh and real.  The magical threats they encounter?  Eh, maybe not so much.  But it’s a great read, regardless.

Teen ager Sierra Santiago is at the center of the story.  She’s a “typical” kid from the vibrant Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, surrounded by a close knit extended family, excited at the prospect of the first party of the summer.  She’s also an artist, who is gaining a reputation for creating street murals, something that has been in her blood for generations.

Little does she know, however, that the paintings on the streets and in the clubs and restaurants, are more than just urban art; for those who claim the craft of “shadowshaping”, they are a tie to an ancient – and not always ambivalent – supernatural power.  Shadowshaping has also run in Sierra’s family – something she has been kept ignorant of (to her great frustration); that is, until a cultural usurper threatens the balance of power, and the murals in her dynamic community start to disappear along with the older generation of shadowshapers.  Together with a mysterious classmate and fellow artist, Robbie, and a cadre of her closest friends, Sierra finds herself thrown into an unfamiliar – and dangerous – realm that brings with it a real threat, and a huge responsibility.

The storyline is intriguing, but it takes a backseat to the character of Sierra herself against the backdrop of her New York City community.  Author Daniel José Older makes this world come to vivid life – the colors, the music, the connection of person to art, person to heritage, to language, to neighborhood.  Sierra’s world fairly crackles with life, and her participation in it is palatable and amazing – the good and the bad.  Being a teen-ager, Sierra finds herself full of self-doubt, not only in the more mystical aspects of her tale but also in her everyday life, exasperated by what sets her apart even as she embraces and celebrates the heritage that has made her.

…She laced up her tall combat boots and squinted at herself again.  Her hair exploded around her face with its usual reckless abandon.  Bennie had insisted on Sierra coming by later so she could braid it.

Her skin was another matter.  It wasn’t bad skin – a zit here and there and the occasional dry island.  But once when she was chatting with some stupid boy online, she described herself as the color of coffee with not enough milk.  There was a pause in the conversation, and the words glared back at her strangely, like the echo of a burp in an empty auditorium.  She wondered if what she’d typed was burning holes in her chat partner too.  Then he typed o thats hot yo and she’d quickly slammed her laptop shut.  In the sudden darkness of her bedroom, the words had lingered as if imprinted in her forehead:  not enough.

The worst part about it, the part she couldn’t let go of, was that the thought came from her.  Not from one of the teachers or guidance counselors whose eyes said it again and again over sticky-sweet smiles.  Not from some cop on Marcy Avenue or Tìa Rosa.  It came from somewhere deep inside her.  And that meant that for all the times she’d shrugged off one of those slurs, some little tentacle of them still crawled its way toward her heart.  Not enough milk.  Not light enough.  MorenaNegra.  No matter what she did, that little voice came creeping back, persistent and unsatisfied.

Not enough.

Today she looked menacingly into the mirror and said:  “I’m Sierra Marìa Santiago.  I am what I am.  Enough.”  She sighed.  These days were spooky enough without her talking to herself.  “More than enough.”

She almost believed it.

This is what makes exemplary fantasy / YA literature, in my mind:  a seamless interweaving of very real, very shared doubts with fantastical elements that allows the main character(s) to struggle in ways both familiar and strange.  And when it’s done with the authentic verve that we find in Shadowshaper, it makes for very entertaining reading.

~ Sharon Browning

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