Saludos, todos! This week we will be showcasing the life and work of Daniel José Older, author of this month’s Featured Book, Shadowshaper. Shadowshaper has been hailed as one of the best new urban fantasies, and lauded for its diverse protagonists. However, Older is a man of many trades and, aside from his career as a young adult novelist, he is also a musician and composer. Older also spent nearly a decade working as a New York City paramedic, and he has turned some of the dispatches and memories from those years into creative non-fiction pieces, or “Ambulance stories.” Older’s time spent as a paramedic exposed him to a variety of social conditions and narratives, which, presumably, have influenced the political and sociological aspects of his creative work. His imaginative fantasy is grounded by real-world social critiques and commentaries. Older lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, which is also where his most recent novel, Shadowshaper, takes place.
According to a review of Shadowshaper by The New York Times, “In the best urban fantasy, the city is not just a backdrop, but functions as a character in its own right, offering up parallels between personal histories and histories of place. That is certainly true in Daniel José Older’s magnificent ‘Shadowshaper,’ which gives us a Brooklyn that is vital, authentic and under attack.” Indeed, Older’s own Brooklyn hometown emerges as a dynamic character full of artistic wonders and sociopolitical complexities, such as gentrification and racism.
Older’s story centers on a female, Afro-Latina protagonist and incorporates elements of Latino culture into a sprawl of urban fantasy. The New York Times also states,
Sierra herself is a compelling, refreshing hero, with a “fro stretched magnificently around her in a fabulous, unbothered halo.” Along with her brother Juan, a guitar player in a salsa-thrash band; the enigmatic Robbie, who draws so compulsively that his art covers “every surface of his clothes, his backpack, his desk”; her trickster figure of an uncle; and a collection of clever and funny friends, she has to discover who is ¬murdering her abuelo’s associates and why other murals all over her neighborhood are fading.
Shadowshaper brings magical realism into the streets of urban life, while incorporating sensations of music and mural-art into a textual narrative.
Older, in an interview and article by The Guardian, also explains his intention of diversifying his stories and their characters:
Older’s imagined Brooklyn is full of danger, less gentrified than the real-life version, and decidedly diverse. “We’re doing something very political by deciding whose life matters, where we’re going to focus things, and who we erase from the picture,” he says. This kind of diversity, he feels, is lacking in most other fantasy YA novels. “When we create worlds based on this world that don’t include diversity, we’re lying,” he says. “We’re not being honest as authors. Even if it’s infused with magical powers, or zombies, or whatever you’ll have, we should still be trying to tell the truth. Then, it becomes a question of what truth, how are we telling it, and whose truth do we take the time to repeat?”
Older is openly critical of other young adult novels that lack adequate representation of minorities or people of color. He engages in writers workshops for children, as well as panels for book conferences, in an attempt to inspire others to follow suite in diversifying young adult novels. According to the same article by The Guardian, “Older also values the supportive community of fellow writers of colour. His mentors have been black female fantasy and science fiction writers like Sheree Renée Thomas and Tananarive Due, who pointed out to him that black women are rarely positioned as protagonists. With Sierra, Older is trying to live up to what he feels is his responsibility to change that.”
Older’s other works include Half-Resurrection Blues and Salsa Nocturna, amongst other novels and short stories. Older has also co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. In addition, he has written a number of essays that have appeared in different journals, magazines, and online publications, as well as in another anthology, Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and beyond. Older is a dynamic and prolific writer, who is commendably paving the way in the diversification of YA fantasy.
For additional information on Daniel José Older, check out the following links:
- Older’s article, Diversity is not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing
- Older’s article, Writing Begins With Forgiveness: Why One of the Most Common Pieces of Writing Advice Is Wrong
- Older’s personal website
- Older’s opinion piece in The Guardian, Do black children’s lives matter if nobody writes about them?
- Another great author profile from The Brown Bookshelf
Stay tuned for an introduction to our January themes on civil rights and more amazing book reviews on child activism and civil justice!