BookUp faculty Daniel José Older recently published the young adult novel, Shadowshaper, to widespread critical acclaim. The novel follows Sierra Santiago, a young Puerto Rican muralist in Brooklyn whose paintings come to life.
Shadowshaper received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. The NY Times praised it as an example of the “best urban fantasy,” portraying Brooklyn as a city under threat from gentrification and police violence.
Below, Older shares his thoughts on how the YA book industry has changed, the role of diversity in children’s literature, and the importance of listening in the creative process.
National Book Foundation: What were you like as a young reader?
Daniel José Older: I really loved Greek mythology and politics. I was really into the Iliad and all the presidents.
NBF: That’s an interesting mix for a kid.
DJO: I was definitely all over the place when reading books my level. [Laughs.] But I think that little kids do like to read at those levels instead of the ones we think [they should read at]. Little kids tend to read above their level, like YA and middle grade books.
In the 80s, there were certainly books for young readers, but there wasn’t the excitement and the drive in the industry built in that there is now. That’s pretty cool.
NBF: Could you tell us one of the high points during your time as a BookUp instructor?
DJO: Every time that I give books to the kids and they light up. They’re so excited. Seeing them be that excited about reading is amazing. It never gets old no matter how many times it happens.
Another cool moment I remember is this little girl who came up to me when I was telling the class that I was a writer. I was telling them that I had books published, and she went, “You’re an Arthur? You’re a published Arthur?” And I just cracked up, I didn’t know what to do.
NBF: You’ve received praise for your most recent novel, Shadowshaper, from the New York Times, NPR, and Publishers Weekly. The novel follows teenager Sierra Santiago as she saves her community from dark forces through her art. Could you talk about your inspiration for writing this book? Did you draw on your own experiences?
DJO: I really love reading Harry Potter. And a lot of the ideas for Shadowshaper came out of thinking about Harry Potter, but trying to think of it in a context that was from Latinos and other people of color.
NBF: Right, so the book is set in the Brooklyn neighborhoods with the people who comprise them.
DJO: Yes, exactly. I think [people of color] need stories about history and about how we’ve gotten here, and we also really want magic and fantasy and excitement. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, though sometimes we think of them that way. We can tell great, adventurous stories and talk about painful truths in a contemporary context. Racism and racial violence is still abundant today, and we need to address it in literature. We need to address that in a realistic setting, and sometimes, we need to address that in a fantastic setting. So that was one thing I was interested in doing.
I also just love art. Especially street art. I love walking down the street and being struck by something amazing. I think it’s sometimes more powerful than when you go to a museum and you kind of have expectations about what you’re going to see and the art is sort of separated in a particular place. But street art is alive, and fun, and uninhibited. No one has edited it or curated it, it’s just there.
And I love the idea of art coming to life. As an artist, as a writer, and as a musician, I feel like we’re always in conversation with the pieces that we’re creating. It’s like a one way street where we’re just trying to envision this amorphous thing. We’re really in dialogue with that, and I love that part of the process, that conversation. So I was trying to put that into a fantastical mission.
“We can tell great, adventurous stories and talk about painful truths in a contemporary context. Racism and racial violence are still abundant today, and we need to address it in literature.”
NBF: I also saw the parallel between Sierra being an artist and you being a writer; both of you are trying to make something that has its own life.
DJO: Absolutely. When I was a kid, I was actually a drawing kid. I loved to draw. I drew on everything the way [the character] Robbie does, and I disappeared into my drawings the way Sierra does. There were definitely parts of myself that I put into the story.
NBF: Could you talk about the importance of diversity in young adult literature? Why did you choose to write from the perspective of a woman of color as opposed to a man of color?
DJO: What I would say is that diversity is the truth. As a writer, it’s a matter of telling the truth. Especially when we contextualize it within an industry that historically and currently does not focus on people of color by and large. Especially kids of color. There’s an urgency around making sure that our lives and our stories and our humanity appear. And appear in a protagonist kind of way, not as just a sidekick or a villain.
That’s where I come from on that. Writing a character who’s not exactly like me is something that I take seriously and that I’ve written about in an essay. So I don’t think there’s just one answer, except that when I started thinking about the story, Sierra was basically the first person to show up. [Laughs.] I was trying to conceive of what this [story] might look like, and Sierra was just like, “Here I am.” And there was no stopping that.
And then I think it becomes a question of, if this character is not you, which it really never is, how do you then respectfully enter into creating that character in a way that is real. I think one of the most important things is, especially with characters that aren’t like us, you really have to learn how to listen. They say that what makes a great musician is not how well you play but how well you listen and I think the same is true for writing. If we really stopped to think about it and checked ourselves and checked our privileges and stopped talking for just a second and actually listened, I think that’s when we really start to see more human characters.
NBF: Which authors do you draw inspiration from as a writer and as a teacher?
DJO: It’s an ever-changing list. I love Octavia Butler. She was definitely a huge influence on me. Walter Mosley as well – the Easy Rawlins series especially. Both of them are great examples at telling a really great story but also saying something really deep.
They break down the false notion that we have to do one or the other. Or automatically by saying “I have a message and I want it to be didactic,” but they do it in such nuance and complexity and often in very raw and passionate ways. And they still tell this story that is so gripping and you need to find out what happens next, and all these things that make a story great, and it still says something really powerful.
And when we step back, all of our stories do say something really powerful. But sometimes the messages are still normalized within a society where you don’t even notice that it’s happening. A lot of fantasy fiction has very powerful messaging about colonialism and white power, but that’s been normalized. So they become very political books. Tolkien is very political. When we have an industry that’s essentially all white heroes saving the world, that’s a very political statement.
So it’s great to see writers of colors taking a stance and not being afraid of being political and saying something true. And saying it while telling a great story.
Monique Briones is an intern at the National Book Foundation and a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has been published at Blotterature (forthcoming), Belleville Park Pages, and the Stockholm Review of Literature. She grew up in Philadelphia and currently lives in Brooklyn. Follow Monique on Twitter.