Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

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.

shadoshaper-cover
SHADOWSHAPER––PUBLISHED BY ARTHUR A. LEVINE BOOKS

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.

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One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

This book is not new, nor am I the first to talk about how wonderful it is. One Crazy Summer was well-received when it was published in 2010, winning plenty of deserved accolades––look at all those lovely stickers!––including the Coretta Scott King Award.

I finally got to dive into this middle grade novel a couple weeks ago. And there’s no way I can’t blog about it. It’s just that good.

one-crazy-summer-cover
ONE CRAZY SUMMER––PUBLISHED BY AMISTAD

Hearing Rita Williams-Garcia at SCWBI-NY last February was one of the highlights of my year. She spoke frankly about being a writer, being a black woman writer, her early career, and especially her journey to publication. Lucky for us, she persevered until she got there––because her books have so much to teach us as readers, authors, and human beings.

Here are a few things One Crazy Summer can teach kidlit writers, especially those taking on tough, complex topics from a young person’s perspective.

1. Don’t let your readers off easy.

One Crazy Summer is the story of the three Gaither sisters, who fly from New York City to Oakland, California, to visit their mother. Their mother left them and moved across the country when the youngest one was just a newborn.

Cecile, also called Nzila, is one of the most complex mother figures I’ve seen in a children’s book. Often moms in kidlit fall into very clear Good or Bad camps. They’re present and caring; or present and standing in the way of whatever the protagonist wants to achieve; or completely absent (hello, every Disney movie ever), thus enabling the young MC to get up to their shenanigans, no maternal supervision involved.

But Cecile is different.

For a long time, she’s chosen not to be part of her three girls’ lives. And when the girls arrive to California, Cecile makes it very clear she didn’t ask for them to come visit her, and didn’t particularly want it. She prioritizes herself and her poetry, and guards her resources and her time carefully.

Delphine, the oldest sister and the narrator, arrives to California hungry for what, in her mind, qualifies as traditional “mothering”: home-cooked meals, affection, and hugs. But Cecile’s not giving any of it. In fact, she promptly sends the girls off to a nearby day camp run by the Black Panthers, so she can continue writing her poetry in peace.

But Cecile does offer her girls something: a hard-won wisdom, which she imparts especially to Delphine.

Delphine is practical and responsible, tough on herself and those around her. She’s a planner and a cook and caretaker. After many days of watching Delphine care for the younger girls, Cecile tells her, “It wouldn’t kill you to be selfish, Delphine.” And it’s tough to take, even for the reader. Because Delphine is like this in large part because she’s grown up playing stand-in mother to her younger sisters.

Cecile has a point, though. And she expresses it––and embodies it––beautifully:

“We’re trying to break yokes. You’re trying to make one for yourself. If you knew what I know, seen what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t be so quick to pull the plow.”

Cecile also questions her daughters’ obsessions with television and movies and challenges them to critique what they see. She offers them freedom and independence, and models a different way of moving in the world as a woman.

Williams-Garcia never makes it easy for us to love Cecile. Instead, she respects her character and her readers, challenging us to see all the shades and gradients in Cecile, as a mom and as a human being.

2. Great middle grade books are incredibly simple and wonderfully complex, all at once.

On one level, One Crazy Summer is a very simple story. Throughout the book, Delphine’s main goal is to keep her sisters safe, fed, and happy while they’re reconnecting with their mother. She needs to convince her mother to let her cook for her sisters. She worries when her youngest sister is mocked for her doll. She wants to get along with everyone at the Black Panthers day camp, and thinks, maybe, maybe, the cute boy she met there might be interested in being friends…

Yet there’s a whole other level to the story, too. The girls are uncovering new parts of their family history and discovering what it means to be young and black in the US. They’re absorbing disturbing, dissonant realities about power and policing, a government that isn’t protecting all its people equally, and a mother who may not be able to give them the kind of love they expect.

In the tradition of the best middle grade books, One Crazy Summer deftly mixes small, day-to-day conflicts with larger, more nuanced questions and themes. It’s this mixture of the low and high, the simple and complicated, the specific and the universal that makes One Crazy Summer such a powerful work.

Williams-Garcia is a master, and I could go on and on about what this challenging, heartwarming, wonderful novel has to teach us. But my best advice is just…

Read it! Love it! And share it with a friend.

And––perhaps the best news about One Crazy Summer? It’s only the first of three Gaither sisters books! P.S. Be Eleven came out in 2013, and Gone Crazy in Alabama came out just last year.

I know I’ll be reading the rest soon. The only thing holding me back is how sad I’ll be when it’s time to finally tell Delphine and her sisters goodbye.

Want to chat about One Crazy Summer and other great MG and YA titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

A Court of Mist and Fury Cover
A Court of Mist and Fury, published by Bloomsbury Children’s

This is the first time I’ve used a sequel as one of the Writer Reading Kidlit books. But this one was just too good to pass up.

**Note: Due to the nature of writing about a sequel, and that none of these tips would really make sense without them, this post has some serious spoilers.** So if you haven’t read both Book One––A Court of Thorns and Roses––and Book Two, A Court of Mist and Fury, I highly recommend doing so before you continue!

Go on, read the books…

Okay! Now that we’re all back and recovering from a wild ride in Sarah J. Maas’s sexy, intricate, thrilling magical world, let’s talk about what A Court of Mist and Fury can teach us about writing kidlit. And, specifically, sequels/later books in a series.

While we’re at it, let’s pray to the Cauldron that Book Three’s 2017 release date will come very, very quickly!

1. Up the ante.

Near the end of Book One, it’s hard to see how the stakes could get any higher. Feyre’s beloved Tamlin has been captured by the evil Amarantha; a terrible curse on the lands seems unlikely to be broken; Feyre herself is one wound away from death. But Amarantha, Book One’s central villain, turns out to be little more than an underling of the ultimate bad guy, who has darker, and more extensive, plans that could destroy everything Feyre knows and loves. Where A Court of Thorns and Roses was about saving Tamlin and the rest of the Fae, A Court of Mist and Fury sees the whole mortal and immortal world in peril.

Maas uses several tools to continually raise the stakes. One of the most effective is Feyre’s relationship to the world around her, and the way it shifts and evolves. In Book One, Feyre is an outsider, brought to the Fae world against her will. Feyre’s initial goal is simply to return home to mortal lands, and it’s only when she falls for Tamlin that she has some stake in the fate of his Court. But in Book Two, Feyre’s a hero in her new lands, respected and adored, and she’s developed a bond not only with Tamlin but with several Fae. The Fae world is now her home.

Throughout Book Two, Feyre develops news relationships, learns more about the Fae, and realizes just how much there is to discover and to love. Fighting to defend a foreign Court’s people is one thing. But with a new group of friends and a new home––perhaps the only true, loving home Feyre has ever had––Feyre suddenly has an awful lot more to lose.

2. Defy expectations.

(Warning: this section is *especially* spoiler-y! Highly suggest avoiding until you’ve read the books.)

The central love story of Book One, Feyre and Tamlin, doesn’t get the typical Happily Ever After. After the terrible events Under the Mountain, Feyre’s searching for freedom, for work and meaning, while Tamlin only wants to protect her, and forces her to stay home. Feeling like a captive in Tamlin’s Spring Court, Feyre flees. She ends up at the Night Court, where Tamlin’s longtime nemesis Rhysand rules as High Lord.

Rhysand ends Book One as an intriguing figure: cunning and a bit villainous, he thrills in tormenting Tamlin, yet seems to have a soft spot for Feyre––and mysterious plans of his own. Feyre begins her stay in the Night Court fearing for her life. But what she discovers there defies her expectations: a beautiful, art-filled city, and Rhysand’s closest allies, a group of damaged but lovely beings, doing everything they can to keep their lands peaceful and secure.

After Feyre and Tamlin’s passionate love affair in Book One, it seems impossible that a deeper, sexier romance could emerge––but Maas pulls it off brilliantly. By revealing Rhysand and the Night Court’s backstory bit by bit, Maas has her readers slowly falling for the High Lord and his dream-filled world, just as Feyre begins to realize she might have it in her to love again. The slow-burning romance is sensual and tender, and the revelations also cast the events of Book One in a whole new light. It’s a brilliant pivot, both surprising and meaningful, as Feyre’s two loves illustrate so much about relationships, and independence, and what we need from our partners at different stages in our lives.

3. Don’t be afraid to take your readers to a very dark place.

The opening of Book Two finds Feyre reeling from the trauma inflicted by Amarantha at the end of Book One. Feyre’s been to hell and back, almost literally. A Court of Mist and Fury doesn’t gloss over this trauma. Mass’s portrayal of PTSD and depression is very real; at one point, Feyre is relieved to feel anger, after many months of not feeling anything at all.

“When you spend so long trapped in darkness,” Feyre tells another character, “you find that the darkness begins to stare back.” And Feyre does eventually find solace in the darkness, far from Tamlin’s suffocating Spring Court, in a place where the black night is not the abyss it initially seems. A place where Feyre can be honest with herself about the depths of her trauma, and begin to find hope again.

Feyre’s dark internal journey gives her external journey that much more meaning. When Feyre decides to master her new powers and join the war, it’s not just about showy fight scenes and flashy magic. Instead, it’s the culmination of Feyre’s psychological battle against the darkness inside her––and her own realization that she’s willing to give everything to protect this new life she’s won.

Want to fangirl over this lovely series, or other great YA and MG titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.