Interview with Author and BookUp Instructor Daniel José Older

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.


shadowshaper by daniel jose older book coverNBF: 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.

National Book Foundation Launches New Summer Reading Program

Thanks to an important partnership with New York City’s Department of Youth and Community Development, BookUp was able to launch its first summer program.

Through support from DYCD, BookUp launched 10 new sites throughout the city, helping hundreds of students develop an appreciation for reading where it really counts: outside the classroom. We were also able to bring in new instructors, including Mitchell S. Jackson, Zetta Elliott, Daniel Jose Older, and Charlie Vazquez.

Read more about our work this summer at Publisher’s Weekly.

BookUp NYC Student Kiana Ramirez Shares What Makes BookUp Special

Kiana participated in BookUp, our after-school reading program, for all three years of middle school at Brooklyn’s I.S. 318. After graduating this June, Kiana will attend high school in the fall and plans to return to her BookUp classroom as an intern.

BookUp: You’ve been in BookUp for three years – why did you return year after year?

Kiana Ramirez: BookUp was a place that I couldn’t turn away from, it is an awesome program. I get free books I get to keep, and go on really cool trips. The program overall encourages me to read even more than I used to. I always loved reading and I am always reading whenever I get the chance but while in BookUp, I realized I’ve been walking around constantly to class with a new book in my hand and it is a good feeling.

BU: What did you learn as a reader that you didn’t know before you attended BookUp?

KR: What I’ve learned in BookUp about myself as a reader is that I have learned to appreciate other genres besides what I used to read which was mystery all the time.
BU: How do you think BookUp has prepared you to become a lifelong reader & learner?

KR: I already knew I would be a lifelong reader and learner before attending BookUp because I was so fond of it, but if BookUp were a reason of how to prepare me, it would be encouraging my reading and writing skills.
BU: Do you have any books you’d like to recommend to other readers your age?

KR: Yes I certainly do, I would like to recommend It’s kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini because, the character of the book faces issues that makes him contemplate suicide but sought help and it saved his life. I think the book holds a strong message for people my age and it is a good book overall and I feel anyone can enjoy it.

TASC Praises BookUp’s Transformative Impact on Middle School Students

This post first appeared on The ExpandED Exchange, the blog of ExpandED Schools by TASC.

Where Books Are Still Fashionable

By Susan Brenna
Friday, March 7, 2014
Susan Brenna is TASC’s Chief Communications Officer

TASC expanded ed logoSixth grader Jeremiah Daly, one of 12 siblings, will get on a bus at his Flatbush middle school this Saturday and ride into Manhattan. First he’ll tour Bobst Library at New York University with a group of his classmates. Then he’ll be treated to lunch (barbecue!) at Hill Country Chicken. Then, with $25 from the National Book Foundation, Jeremiah will go shopping at Books of Wonder.

This upcoming plunge into bookishness is thanks to a project the foundation has undertaken “to keep kids interested in books at a time when books are not very fashionable,” as “BookUp” author and teacher John Murillo says.

Jeremiah attends a Middle School ExTRA school, Andries Hudde, where the school staff joins with the community organization CAMBA to offer an extra 2.5 hours of literacy-focused learning and enrichment every day. Once a week during those hours, John Murillo (a poet and finalist for a PEN Open Book Award) visits Hudde. There he uses the same techniques to discuss books, literary genres and writing with sixth graders as he does with his NYU students. Hudde’s BookUp club is co-directed by a CAMBA staff member, Simba McCray, who also writes poetry and organizes community slams.

Jeremiah, who inherited some civil rights history books from a grandfather who taught at Medgar Evers College, elected to join the club because “I have a craving for books,” he said. “And I noticed that the people teaching it were really nice. They let you read and get your feelings out.”

Kyle Rowley, another book club member, was able to raise his English class grades to meet CAMBA’s requirement for joining the basketball team. Kyle, who is 11, says that BookUp was not his first choice of an after-school club, “but now I’m glad I got in.” He has some hand-me-down books at home, but the club’s twice-a-semester book-buying expeditions “make me feel good because now I have my own collection of books. I don’t have to read the ones my sister or my cousins chose.”

The National Book Foundation fully funds the BookUp club at Hudde and two other schools that are joining in this field trip. The foundation’s goal, says Director of Programs Leslie Shipman, is to motivate middle school students to read for pleasure in hopes they’ll develop habits for life.

John Murillo describes the club as “a space where kids get to relax and they get to read. To their credit, they don’t laugh at one another when someone makes a mistake. They teach one another. They help one another.”

Not long ago he introduced Kyle, Jeremiah and the other students to a 300-page, two-book set of graphic novels on China’s Boxer Rebellion, Boxers & Saints. On a Monday, the students took turns reading from Chapter One. When he returned to Hudde the next Monday, expecting to start on Chapter Two, Mr. Murillo found that all his young students had finished both books. He cast his lesson aside and “we had a great discussion about China, history and religion.”

While this is the first year TASC and the New York City Department of Education are extending the school day at Hudde through MS ExTRA, it’s the sixth year that CAMBA has partnered with the foundation to bring BookUp to kids in its programs.

CAMBA’s Vice President for Education & Youth Development, Christie Hodgkins, says the clubs are especially transformative with introverts and students learning English as a second language. She’s seen many middle schoolers lose interest in reading. But when club members get to read “with published authors who are from the communities where they live,” and then get to visit book worlds beyond their neighborhoods, they use a different word to describe reading to her. The word is “awesome.”

BookUp students interview author Rebecca Stead

BookUp Students from CAMBA at M.S. 25 in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, led by instructor Willie Perdomo, read When You Reach Me and Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead earlier this year. They sent her some questions about Liar & Spy, which she was kind enough to answer.


BookUp: Why did you write about a twelve-year-old drinking coffee?

Rebecca Stead: I wanted to write about a kid who’s a little bit of a puzzle. At first I thought maybe he was just pretending to drink coffee, but by the time I finished the story and really understood Safer and his family, I realized he was probably drinking the real thing. Not that I recommend it. I don’t let my actual twelve-year-old son drink coffee, for instance.

Continue reading “BookUp students interview author Rebecca Stead”

BookUp students interview with YA author Lisa Schroeder

Students from our BookUpNYC site at I.S. 318 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn recently read I Heart You, You Haunt Me by Lisa Schroeder. BookUp instructor Lissette Norman said her students loved the book so much that they chose to keep reading it during two BookUp sessions instead of doing an activity. The students sent us a few questions to pass on to Schroeder, who was generous enough to answer via email.

BookUp: Is the book I Heart You, You Haunt Me based on a true story?

Lisa Schroeder: No, I actually had a dream about a girl whose boyfriend died, but he loved her so much he didn’t want to leave her. I woke up feeling a strong sense of love, and I really wanted to write about the teens in the dream. I didn’t know their names, I didn’t know how the guy died, I didn’t know much, except there was sadness and love. I don’t like scary things, so I knew it wouldn’t be a scary ghost story, but something different. As I started writing, Ava seemed to feel guilty, but I didn’t know why. I kept writing, trying to discover how he died, but nothing came to me. One day I was talking to a friend about the story, and she told me about something that happened when she was in high school—at a party a kid jumped off a cliff into the water below and was killed. It gave me chills, because as soon as she said it, I knew it was perfect for the book.


i heart you you heart me by lisa schroeder coverBU: Is it easier or harder to write a book in verse?

LS: This is a hard question to answer because each book is different and each book, no matter how it’s written, usually has things that are easy and other things that are difficult. But I guess, for me, verse is a little easier than prose. My brain seems to work well in trying to describe things in a short, poetic way. Other authors are gifted at being able to write long, beautiful paragraphs of description. That is not me! However, it can be difficult trying to balance the story and the poetry. Story should always be the most important thing, yet I’m constantly worried about being criticized for not being poetic enough. It’s a fine line that has to be walked throughout the entire novel. So it’s not exactly easy.


BU: Do you also write poetry?

LS: I’ve dabbled in poetry throughout the years, yes, but I don’t write much anymore, mostly because of lack of time. When I first started writing, I wrote rhyming picture book stories, which, to me, are like poetry. It’s not just the end words rhyming; it’s very much about rhythm and the words chosen to tell the story. Like I said, I seem to have a brain that enjoys that kind of writing.


BU: Who were some of your favorite authors when you were younger?

LS: I didn’t read a lot as a teen, probably because there wasn’t the wide selection of YA books there is now! You guys are so lucky to have so many books to choose from. But I read a lot when I was like 8-12 years old, and I especially loved Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.


BU: Do you get ideas for your books from dreams you’ve had?

I’ve only had one dream that inspired a book. I wish it would happen more often! People always seem to be interested in where authors get their ideas, and really, inspiration is everywhere. I’ve been inspired by a song, by a story in the news, by a line in another book, and also just by brainstorming ideas. I keep a journal specifically for ideas, and I write all kinds of things in there—words and names I like and little seeds of ideas. I think keeping an idea journal is one of the best things an aspiring writer can do.


BU: Will you publish the book about the lion that you wrote when you were a young girl?

LS: One of the things I tell kids when I visit schools is that we don’t always have to write hoping for publication. I wrote for many, many years just because I enjoyed it. That little book I wrote was just for fun, and it’s actually not a very good story and no one else would really like it, trust me. So no, I won’t try to get it published. And even now, sometimes I write a story and I’m not sure if it’s good enough to be published, but I like writing, and so I write the book for myself and I don’t worry about what anyone else might think. I still have projects that don’t sell, but that’s okay. I am a writer because I love writing. And like anything else—sports, music, art—the only way I improve is by practicing a lot. For any of you who enjoy writing, I encourage you to write for yourself first and foremost. Write because it brings you joy. If anything happens after that—if it’s good enough to be published, great. And if not, it’s okay, because you had fun writing it!


Lisa Schroeder is a native Oregonian which means her childhood summers were spent camping, fishing, reading books (of course!), and playing in the sun, when it finally came out. These days, Lisa spends her summers, and every other part of the year, sharing all of the wonderful things Oregon has to offer with her husband and two sons. She is the author of numerous books for kids and teens, including The Day Before (Simon Pulse, 2011) and Sprinkles and Secrets (Aladdin, 2011).