My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper is admittedly the first YA I’ve read that’s explicitly about a non-white community. It’s also the first book with fantasy elements that I’ve read in a long time. I expected these factors to play into my reading of the book, but I also just got so into this book. I didn’t want to put it down, and I forced myself to slow down, to really savor the experience. It was so worth it.
I’ve thought a lot about how Older made this work, even for me, a non-fantasy reader, a white girl, and I think it comes down to two important elements: the use of setting and the vivid characterizations. The neighborhoods of Brooklyn become characters in this story. A big reason I was drawn into this book is because it was set in Brooklyn. Everything that happens is grounded in place, full of descriptions, from the subways, the streets, to the guys that holla at you when you’re just trying to walk home—all of that was just so real to me. I loved that the magical element of the story lives inside the murals of Brooklyn—it felt real to me, having seen living examples of just how magical street art can really be. While Brooklyn can be a dangerous place (particularly when you got angry, terrifying spirit things wandering around out for blood), it’s also undoubtably home to these characters.
Sierra and her friends were beautifully characterized. Older spends just enough time in description and dialogue so that by the end of the story, I’m attached. I want these kids to be my friends; I want to wander around Brooklyn with them. I got especially attached to Sierra, this beautifully unique girl who, for all her sass, still has some confidence building to do throughout the events of the story. I love that Older deals honestly with the effects of race on a young girl’s self-perception, and the way he complicates it. Sierra internalizes the racism that exists in the outside world, but she’s even more upset at the ways she puts those ideas back on herself:
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. Morena. Negra. No matter what she did, that little voice came creeping back, persistent and unsatisfied. Not enough.
This brief passage broke my heart. For me it was a window into a specific reality that I haven’t experienced, but at the same time, I think we have all felt not enough in one way or another, particularly those of us with female bodies. As much as it broke my heart, I was grateful to be given this window into someone else’s mind. By the time I read this passage, I was already so invested in Sierra’s journey; I wanted to see her filled up with the power that lives within her, filled up with self-confidence and self-love.
I’ll try to keep the rest of this brief, but here are some other aspects of this that really got me thinking:
The brief conversation between the friends about their ancestry. I loved that Older talked about the complicated history of Latinx culture. It’s definitely not his job to educate us white folks, but for those of us who are open to learning, it’s so important to recognize that the world is more complicated than black, white, brown, whatever. I loved the way the mythology ties in with that, the way Sierra’s birthright is damn magical. Older does a beautiful job blending Spanish words in with the English in a way that adds to the story without causing a non-Spanish-speaker to be totally turned off.
Without giving everything away, a big theme in this story is the importance of holding onto one’s culture, treasuring it, keeping it safe from those who won’t understand. From the beginning, there’s this understanding that Sierra’s world is under attack. There’s an honest portrayal of gentrification, a question of, as one character puts it, “who gets to study and who gets studied, and why?” In the world of the book, there are some serious consequences of gentrification; as someone who lived in multiple Latinx neighborhoods in New York City, it was nice to see the issue getting addressed in this way.
Ultimately, Shadowshaper is about acceptance: learning to love yourself, love your history, and claim your destiny without fear or shame. It’s a beautifully written, fast-paced story that will keep you thinking—and leave you with a serious case of book hangover.