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Today in YA: Review of Shadowshaper

This post is from Food, Fitness & Fiction contributing editor Amber Lee.

Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper (Arthur A. Levine Books, June 30, 2015) follows Brooklyn teenager Sierra Santiago who discovers that her family has hidden magical roots and has to save their entire community from the cusp of destruction. Her Bed-Stuy neighborhood is under attack on an insidious two-fold level: through both the ugly concrete blocks and hipster cafes impeding on her community, and an analogous twisted power trying to stamp out the last embers of art-imbued magic that had been flowing through the people for generations.

My first impression of Shadowshaper was that it was meant for a much younger audience than I expected. I did not know that it was published by Scholastic and expected the suggested age range of intended audience to be 15-18 rather than 11-14. At first I was disappointed, but ultimately I really enjoyed the book. The story is fresh and built around big adult ideas including one’s heritage and gentrification as well as art. The ideas are introduced organically at a younger level, but that does not make the pulse of the story any less fun or vibrant.

What sets the novel as a whole apart from its first page is its unique setting. I adore urban fantasy but pretty much everything I’ve read in that vein was a variation of gritty neo-noir procedural. Shadowshaper is very much the opposite. This book can’t be any farther from the black and blue shadow-drenched streets of Manhattan; slick and streamlined, populated by the faceless and immoral. Sierra Santiago and her friends and family live a few blocks down in Bed-Stuy and Older drops readers directly into a Brooklyn summer. Culture constantly seeps into the story through old brownstone houses, smatterings of Spanish in the dialogue, the bodegas and dance clubs and bands; as well as how readily the heritages of various characters are laid out because of how vital they are to their lives and identities. The primarily black and Latino community where the story takes place is the foundation for the whole narrative—the backdrop, the bedrock. The people banter and talk and tease each other and just have fun and love each other. In the community there is no malice or hatred, only concern and familial matters. There’s this elevated level of conflict that’s built over love and trust and solidarity and the entire atmosphere of the book is warm and lovely. The narrative is full of compromises and forgiveness within the community but is unforgiving in its condemnation of racism.

There is an obvious thematic distinction between the older and younger generations throughout the novel that make up the foundational blocks of their community and both are well presented and necessary to the story. Sierra, Robbie, Tee, Izzy, and Jerome all read like real teenagers in their speech and actions and they have their own distinct culture as do their parents and grandparents do. However while the wide cast was needed for the much-appreciated real sense of community, there simply was not enough room for each of the characters to be properly developed. This goes hand in hand with the novel’s other flaws.  Older had a lot to say in a relatively small frame and the overall story did suffer as a result. The plot was at times clumsily developed and transitions to different settings were strange and ungrounded and sometimes vital realizations were either blink-and-you-miss it or kind of a reach. Some of the character interactions seem a little forced or stilted. However, Older also shows how well the old and the new mingle and how the kids of this generation are an extension of the old culture even as they change it The old boleros and ancestral songs are mixed with youth culture, epitomized by Sierra’s brother’s band salsa-thrash-metal band Culebra. Shadowshaping is the system of magic and also ties into this. It works through the ability to give shape to spirits being handed down through generations by choice. Remembering and honoring the old culture is what keeps the community alive. And the magic lives in the connection between the people and the spirits.

Shadowshaper is unflinching and honest in its commentary on gentrification and social ramifications of ethnicity. The book opens with immediate condemnation of a giant cement block of a building the city had unceremoniously planted in the middle of a block full of antiquated brownstones. What sets up the entire story is Sierra and her friends painting over it, reclaiming it. And the magical plot is so thoroughly integrated, the building is also where the villain—the literal personification of the white savior complex—resides. The dual symbolism is very well set up, always on the periphery of Sierra’s relatively light, fast-paced story. Big issues such as police brutality and gentrification are addressed along with body image and self-esteem, topics of concern to any kid going through puberty or their teen years face.

Above all, Shadowshaper is permeated with so much love—love for the people it depicts including the entire community. Magic runs through its veins and through the history and love and community that envelopes every inch of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in which the book is set. Everything is open and discussed and the conversations are so full of passion and affection. I was deeply moved by the last image of the book when the whole group of friends, Sierra’s brother, and her mother, holding hands in a circle, go around and honor their dead relatives and then receive the magic that turns them all into the new generation of Shadowshapers upon the ashes of the old boys’ club they both usurp and venerate. This novel is about youth, the new generation, the possibility of change; and it’s exactly what the young adult fiction scene needs.

Amber Lee is a high school junior from Irvine, California, and a staff writer for the Beckman Chronicle. She first published her writing online at age 11 and is interested in journalism, DIY projects, creative writing, and digital art. You can follow her on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram.

To learn more about the book, visit Daniel Jose Older’s website here.

For other reviews of Shadowshaper, check out the following links:

Teen Reads

Teen Book Crew

The New York Times

NPR Books



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About The Author

Elisa Zied is a nationally recognized and award-winning health and nutrition expert, author, speaker, and spokesperson. A trusted source of food, nutrition, and health information, Elisa has garnered millions of media impressions, lending her expertise and real-world perspective to dozens of TV shows, web sites, news organizations and magazines. She’s the author of four nutrition books. An avid walker, she loves motivating others to #moveitorloseit. A book lover, she recently earned a certificate in children’s literature from Stony Brook Southampton and is currently working on several young adult novels. You can find her previous Food, Fitness & Fiction posts here and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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