I promise I’m not just reviewing Shadowshaper because of how pretty the cover is going to look on my homepage.
…Well, okay, that’s a big plus!
But the cover’s not the only gorgeous thing about this book. There is so much for kidlit writers to learn from Daniel José Older’s YA novel Shadowshaper.
[Note: mild spoilers ahead!]
1. Work hard to make your prose look easy.
Shadowshaper features memorable characters, a fascinating setting, and a plot that clips right along. But I’d like to talk about another of the book’s great strengths: its prose. Crisp and clear, rich with voice and vividness, Older’s prose is distinguished by how easy it reads.
Yet anyone who’s tried their hand at writing a story knows: that easiness only comes after a lot of hard work.
In Shadowshaper, a love of words infuses each paragraph, line, and sentence. Here’s just one example:
The gravelly voice spoke her name like a native Spanish speaker would, a light roll of the Rs leading into the clipped A. It didn’t matter. The beast could be Puerto Rican all day long, it was still a horrible, lurking, festering…
There’s rhythm here, with a staccato sentence amidst two longer, more flowing ones. The words have those sounds you can really feel your mouth: gravelly, lurking. Finally, there’s a mix of ultra-specific, just-right vocab––clipped, festering, beast––and voice-y turns of phrase: “be Puerto Rican all day long.” By making careful choices, attentive to rhythm and sound, Older crafts prose that’s both evocative and very fun to read.
2. Give your setting enough life and it can become a character, too.
Older establishes a magical, textured setting here that has real agency and power within the story. It’s an evocative rendering of Brooklyn that felt real and otherworldly all at once.
Older uses contemporary issues as a jumping-off point for the book’s fantasy elements. Gentrification, racism, structural inequality, institutional violence, and cultural appropriation all play a part in the conflict that emerges between a cruel white academic and Sierra’s family and friends. In the words of The New York Times: it’s “a Brooklyn that is vital, authentic and under attack.”
There are overpriced coffeeshops and unfinished developments, stares from new white neighbors and a never-flagging threat of police violence. At one point, protagonist Sierra Santiago notes that the white barista at the new café gives her “either the don’t-cause-no-trouble look or the I-want-to-adopt-you look.”
This mixture of the fantastical and real allows Older to send a subtle political message. While the conflict in Shadowshaper is fictional, this Brooklyn exists in our world, too––and surely there’s a girl like Sierra Santiago out fighting this same fight right now.
3. Remember your protagonist has a body, in addition to a mind.
A while back, Christa Desir and Carrie Mesrobian did a really interesting interview for The Booklist Reader about sex in YA. Mesrobian posed a litmus test for realistic portrayal of a teen’s whole existence, not just their inner thoughts:
[…C]an you picture the characters’ entire bodies? Or are they just giant intellects on top of lollipop-stick bodies?
Older excels at this, making sure Sierra’s body is just as much a part of her character as her mind. There’s the afro Sierra loves, the height she takes pride in––it gives her a “glint of pleasure” to be taller than her older brother. She’s not quite sure what to think when her love interest complements her “belly fat,” though, and turns the conversation instead to his “skinny-ass chest.”
Sierra uses this body, too: she dances and fights. She feels pleasure and pain.
As an author, it can be easy to get caught up in character’s cerebral experiences. Older does write some beautiful descriptions of Sierra’s artistic process, her reflections on her family, and her conflicting emotions about a new friend. But he also remembers that our bodies, our physical experiences, are such an important part of the way we move through the world. Especially when we’re young.
Sierra Santiago feels so real that finishing Shadowshaper is like saying goodbye to an old friend. Fortunately, it isn’t goodbye for long: Shadowhouse Fall, the second book in this trilogy, comes out in September 2017! I can’t wait to revisit Sierra’s world––and see what evil forces she and her friends take on next.
Want to chat about Shadowshaper or other great YA and middle grade titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.