Last March, I went to a We Need Diverse Books panel at The New School where Daniel José Older. I was incredibly moved by all the speakers, but knew in particular I wanted to read Shadowshaper because of Older’s insightful comments about representation, artistic responsibility, and craft. These insights shined through in the story of Sierra Santiago, a teenage girl in Brooklyn who discovers that people have been connecting spirits with the murals in her neighborhood in an act called shadowshaping. But all is not right in the spiritual world. The murals are weeping and disappearing. Her grandfather, who’s suffered from a stroke, won’t stop apologizing to her. Soon it becomes very clear that Sierra, herself, is in danger and she doesn’t even know why.
The magical system in this book is unique and completely connected to the culture of the characters. The scary situations were, indeed, very scary. But even better, the whole world felt alive. Murals who could dance, cry, and feel – it’s made me look at my neighborhood in new ways.
The book’s Brooklyn setting, where I live, made it especially fun for me to read. Sierra lives in a different neighborhood than me, but throughout the book I was thinking things like that’s right by my dentist and I pass that in the park when I go for runs and I went to that exact subway stop for a Halloween party two years ago. It was frightening and lovely to imagine this whole magical world unfolding in my borough. It was also frightening to see the all to believable acts of racism and sexism perpetrated against Sierra in the place that I live.
Older portrays Sierra’s experiences in ways that are both complex and intersectional. She faces racism and sexism from outside her community. But from the reasons why her grandfather excludes her from shadowshaping to the cat calls she hears in her own neighborhood to her aunt looking down on Robbie (the Haitian artist who helps Sierra and provides the story with a sweet romance) because of his dark skin, racism and sexism are explored inside Sierra’s community as well.
If you can’t tell that I recommend this book whole heartedly, than I must not be a very good writer. With visual writing, high suspense, and beautifully constructed relationships I know I’m eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.