Written by Daniel José Older
Published by Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015
Age Level: 12 and up
Paint a mural. Start a battle. Change the world.
Sierra Santiago planned an easy summer of making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears… Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.
With the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one — and the killer believes Sierra is hiding their greatest secret. Now she must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for generations to come.
Full of a joyful, defiant spirit and writing as luscious as a Brooklyn summer night, Shadowshaper introduces a heroine and magic unlike anything else in fantasy fiction, and marks the YA debut of a bold new voice.
Older’s Shadowshaper has received wide-acclaim, and after reading it, it’s easy to see why. There aren’t many books out there that do what this one does. I’m not sure I’ve ever read an urban fantasy book, certainly not for young adults. I also can’t think of a single fantasy book whose characters are based almost entirely on a group of urban youth of color. As we talk more and more about the need for authentic and quality diverse literature in the classroom, it’s easy to see why a book like this is so important.
While I certainly enjoyed it, and definitely appreciated it even more after a second read, the adult reader in me (who loves fantasy) wanted more backstory. Since it’s set in New York City, Older really isn’t creating a new world, so there’s not the need for all the history that has to be presented in world building. He is creating a new mythology though, and I found myself wanting more backstory about what had happened generations before that resulted in the situation that Sierra and her friends find themselves. Of course, all of this may be what turns a YA reader off, especially a reader who struggles when getting bogged down in too much background information and not enough active plot. I also realize that providing all of that background information tends to lead to a denser text, which I know can make it even harder to incorporate into the classroom. For various reasons, we teachers typically can’t spend months and months on one book. Perhaps all of this just means there is a prequel in the making.
One of the strongest elements of the book is the way in which it broaches so many important discussion topics. I could go on and on here, so I’ll keep it short and offer more of a list of highlights. I loved the way the dialogue in the book problematized the idea of a monolithic Latino/a race or ethnicity. As the characters talked about their own heritages they demonstrated the ways in which conquest and colonization create complicated heritages and racial histories. I think the way in which the book engages in conversations about race will appeal to many students. The critique of racism is certainly here, but not in a forced way. It comes through discussions of a brother lost to police violence, gentrification, segregation of neighborhoods in New York City, and the assumptions made when Sierra finds herself in a neighborhood where she’s not welcome. I really appreciated that many of these critiques came through the dialogue among youth of color. I particularly enjoyed the conversation about the hippies, yuppies, and the difference between the two. The banter and conversations among the characters is one of the best parts of the book.
Sierra’s own struggles with body image and self-acceptance were another powerful part of the book. As I read her struggles I was reminded of another one of my favorite female protagonists from Gabi, A Girl in Pieces. I think it’s so important that these types of conversations around the connection between body image and self-love are made explicit with our students. I also think the book can be used to discuss important topics like sexism and patriarchy through looking at the motivations for the grandfather’s actions and choices. On a somewhat related note, our book group had a similar conversation. I should preface the following by saying we are not an easy audience to please. I think that’s why I love our monthly meetings so much. This is a group of strong, intelligent, critical, and creative women, and we frequently discuss the ways in which women are portrayed in literature. Not surprisingly, we loved Sierra Santiago. However, we may have been a *tiny* bit critical of the need to write in a boyfriend and how rapidly that relationship seemed to move. I think it’s important to discuss with our students how often our strong female protagonists seem to “have to have” some kind of romantic interest via a boyfriend or crush.
While our book group may have had a few critiques, we were unanimous in our agreement that this is a book that many students would love. One of our teachers is even reading it to her students now. In its entirety, it’s certainly a book for older middle school or high school students, but I think parts of it could be used with elementary students. As much as many students love fantasy, it’s not a genre they always get to read a lot of in school. Students could really enjoy listening to a read aloud of a chapter or two that explains the premise of the book and the idea of shadowshapers, then writing their own story based on that information. Using the premise of the book as a story starter, students could create their own fantasy short story.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the book. If you’d like to read other reviews check out the links below.
Our complete educator’s guide is now available.
If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book, check out the links to other reviews below:
- New York Times
- NPR’s “Shadowshaper Paints a Vibrant Picture”
- Rich In Color
- American Indians in Children’s Literature
- Latinos in Kid Lit
4 thoughts on “Book Review: Shadowshaper”
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