Note from Klem-Marí Cajigas, GLLI blog Guest Editor for #WorldKidLit Month 2020: Today I want to welcome writer Ruth Terry to the blog. I really appreciate her contributions. Welcome!
Daniel José Older’s novel Shadowshaper, released in 2015, is an urban fantasy embedded with real-world commentary about the nature of art and the lived experiences of race.
Sierra Santiago is an Afro-Boricua teen with a penchant for painting. While creating a mural on the side of a building abandoned by local developers, she notices that a nearby mural of the deceased Papa Acevedo is fading — and crying. She’s not crazy. Sierra can see this because she, like her Haitian friend Robbie who painted Papa Acevedo, is a shadowshaper.
Shadowshapers, she comes to learn, can channel spirits of the dead into drawings and murals. This spiritual magic is a way to keep ancestors close and also a means of rallying them to protect the living.
Robbie helps Sierra understand her latent powers, which were gifted to her by an unknown benefactor. But her growing awareness of the spirit realm is inextricably linked to the fact that something is very wrong there. In addition to crying murals and friends’ disappearances, Sierra is chased down by zombie-like corpuscles and has the eye of the seemingly malevolent trinity of Sorrows.
Her grandfather, Lázaro, a shadowshaper who has recently suffered a traumatic stroke, gives Sierra cryptic clues about the evil encroaching into the world of shadows — and how to end it. They quickly lead her to the story’s antagonist, Columbia anthropology professor Dr. Jonathan Wick. Lázaro regrettably initiated Wick into shadowshaping and he has grown powerful due to the intervention of the Sorrows. Wick can only be stopped by the spectral Lucera. But Sierra has to find both of them first.
Sierra’s search for Lucera and Wick drive the action-packed plot, but I wished more time was spent on fleshing out the shadowshaper mythology. It’s never clear exactly how shadowshaping works, particularly when it is used as a power for evil. In contrast, Older’s portrait of Black and brown Bed-Stuy has much more texture.
As a second-generation Puerto Rican immigrant, I could relate to descriptions of food and cultural quirks like how Nuyoricans identify as “Spanish.” Older doesn’t shy away from deeper issues, bringing in issues of colorism and internalized racism that are still prevalent in Latinx communities. The fraught relationship between Bed-Stuy residents and police also rang true.
Most interesting is how Older handles cultural appropriation throughout the book. Wick’s descent into evil madness started when he infiltrated a closed community of magic practitioners for research purposes. This theme of cultural entitlement is echoed in conversations Sierra and her friends about the coffee-house gentrification of their neighborhood.
The book left many unanswered questions when it came to shadowshaper mythos: how did shadowshaping evolve from its Caribbean roots? Do Lucera and the Sorrows fit into a larger pantheon of spiritual entities? Is creating corpuscles shadowshaping or some other darker magic?
With the immediate situation with Wick resolved, perhaps the rest of the trilogy takes the spirit-world-building to a new level. Whatever direction Older chose, I hope he continued to build on Shadowshapers’ most compelling theme: that art, in all its forms, undoes death, reinvigorating dearly-departed ancestors and helping the living cope with real-world problems in their communities.
Written by Daniel José Older
2015, Scholastic Inc.
Page Count: 304
Other books in the Shadowshaper Cypher Trilogy:
Shadowhouse Fall (2017, Scholastic, Inc.)
Shadowshaper Legacy (2020, Scholastic, Inc.)
Ruth is a Black/Puerto Rican American who writes about race, culture, and travel through an equity lens. Follow her on Twitter @Ruth_Terry.