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shadowshaperShadowshaper by Daniel José Older
Arthur A. Levine Books, June 2015
Reviewed from an ARC

And now we are at the review I’ve been most excited about all year! The one that made me curse the linear nature of the calendar year, and the September publication date (editing note: I just found out Amazon listed this as out in June. I didn’t have to sit on this review??). All this waiting! All my bottled up excitement! I’ve had a few other books surprise me once I’ve picked them up this year, but this is a title I went into intrigued about — that cover! That premise! URBAN FANTASY, I HEART YOU. And while I am not here to report that this is a perfect book (does such a thing even exist?), I am happy to say that I’m not alone in my excitement. Four starred reviews. A myriad of lists (both summer reading recommendations and year’s best). But not just critical love; there’s been blog buzz and reader buzz for this title, too.

So. Excitement. Shared excitement, even. And while it’s not Older’s debut title, it is his YA debut, and I always feel happy to be the Printz blogger who gets to say, welcome to the YA world (which is not actually my job here, and the welcoming actually happened back in September, but I am in the middle of a gush here, people, and just cannot be stopped).

But what am I gushing about, specifically? Well! The characterization, for sure. Sierra is complicated — both bold and uncertain, fierce and fragile. She is determined to figure her mystery out, to find out the secrets held in the past, to unlock the truth with her art and with her investigation. She is a strong character — and she has equally well-rounded friends. The group, as they talk and hang out, sound and seem like a group of teens I might work with in the library or see out in the city — funny, layered, passionate. Their conversation about gentrification, and semi-ambivalent feelings about it (Izzy, I understand the “but coffee” feels, too) felt like teens talking, without ever reading like fake teen-speak.

Older does a fantastic job of depicting NYC, too. It’s full of people, and as Sierra and company move through different neighborhoods, he captures how distinct one area feels from another. When Sierra and Uncle Neville go to Columbia, Older again allows the differences in neighborhoods to shine through. Bed-Stuy isn’t Park Slope, which isn’t Morningside Heights, etc.

I’m most impressed by the thematic scope. Older has crafted a richly layered, complicated story; it’s intense and ambitious. Older manages to show, through the course of the story, the interconnectedness between people, between historical forces and individuals — the way that the personal is political. In Shadowshaper, colonialism is not just an academic idea; it’s still a force that is shaping the world. It’s had impact on Sierra’s family, and thus directly affects Sierra herself. Sierra’s abilities are part of the story, but are also a metaphor for cultural inheritance. And I love that it’s a thoughtful, mindful cultural inheritance; Sierra has criticism, frustration, and anger for the sexism that her grandfather showed.

As I said, it’s not a perfect novel, but as I think about it, I find the imperfections shrinking in my perception. The pacing is not very smooth — tension ramps up but then quickly dissipates, and every once in a while Sierra gets an infodump. Some of those infodumps come from Nydia, a very Helpful Librarian character (and I’ll grant that I’m more sensitive to that than the average reader, so I concede this as quite minor, too. Aaaaaand, TBH, I’d rather have a Helpful Librarian character than a Grumpy Librarian character, SO).

The ending is where these issues really come to a head — pacing-wise, it’s a pretty fast ending and is quickly wrapped up. Some of this impression is really about authorial choice. Because Sierra’s powers are a metaphor for cultural heritage, she is able to smoothly, beautifully — even joyfully — open to them. These are some of my favorite passages in the book, actually. However, it does mean that the big show down at the end loses a little of the suspense it’s trying to go for. She has rocked every test put before her, the possibility of failure just doesn’t feel likely at that point.

This sort of choice strikes me as very like the sacrifice that Crowder made in Audacity. There, the gorgeous language and superb design meant a loss of immediacy. Here, the authorial choices mean that we lose suspense but gain a richly layered and ambitious thematic treatment of history, politics, and power.

So, how will the committee read this book? That really depends. But if I were on the committee, this is a title I’d be ready to vote for in the Final Five. So I’m giving it a contender tag here, and am ready to talk in the comments! What do you think?

Stray thoughts (thanks, Joy!):

  • The first time the zombiemonsters crashed the Park Slope party — I was gripping the book so tightly. Older does a great job weaving in horror elements smoothly (and creepily). Mixing a little horror into an urban fantasy story elevated the suspense at various points.
  • The general premise of the story! Paintings, murals, and graffiti HAVING LIFE! Changing before our eyes! Reflecting the world not just in their content but LITERALLY (magically). Art being a force for fighting battles and changing the world! <3
  • Speaking of art in the story — the music descriptions are wonderful.
  • Fab cover. Fab, fab, fab cover. (Not germane to the Printz, I know, but it is a gorgeous cover.)
About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. Everyone who loves books has one that lingers in their head and heart, long after they’ve read it. For me, SHADOWSHAPER is one of those books. That part that initially felt to Sarah like an info dump? I love love love all those parts, especially the questions–right there on the page–in that part about who has power.

    As a teen (for those who don’t know me, I’m tribally enrolled with a small pueblo in northern New Mexico), I would have loved SHADOWSHAPER. I was a teen in the 70s, coming into that age watching the news, knowing that Native and POC were pushing for change in society. I was so hungry for books that depicted us thinking about, and, doing that work! Asking questions. Challenging colonialism. Reflecting on our own worlds and injustice in our families and communities–and of course, in the nation and world.

    Here’s what I mean. Sierra knows things aren’t good in the world. Here is one of the conversations she has with Nydia (the librarian at Columbia) who wants to start a library in Harlem, filled with stories about the people of Harlem. On page 50, Nydia tells Sierra about an anthropologist:

    “He was a big anthro dude, specifically the spiritual systems of different cultures, yeah? But people said he got too involved, didn’t know how to draw a line between himself and his — she crooked two fingers in the air and rolled her eyes — “subjects. But if you ask me, that whole subject-anthropologist dividing line is pretty messed up anyway.”

    Sierra wants to know more about that line between subject and anthropologist. Nydia tells her (p. 51):

    “Who gets to study and who gets studied, and why? Who makes the decisions, you know?”

    In this decade, we’re seeing news stories about Native and POC challenging injustice. For the teens of this moment, SHADOWSHAPER is priceless. So far (in this comment) I’ve focused on that particular aspect of the book, but none of it would work if Sierra’s voice didn’t ring true. But, it did! Beautifully and painfully. The same is true with all the characters around her and her relationships with them. The exchange she has with Rosa about skin color and hair! Wow! I’ve heard similar ones in lots of spaces. Heated and accurate, they reflect that dimension of our lives.

    In short? I think SHADOWSHAPER is one of the most important books out in 2015.

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