Daniel José Older
Arthur A. Levine Books
June 2015

In the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn, Sierra Santiago passes the time painting murals, hanging out with her tight-knit Puerto Rican family, and partying with her friends. One day her mural starts to shed tears and her abuelo, a recently bed-ridden stroke victim, comes out of his half coma and starts mumbling “lo ciento” – “I’m sorry.” Soon after, Sierra finds herself the target of attacks by some zombie-like creatures. An enchanted photograph, some research, and a couple of dates with sexy loner and artist Robbie lead her to the conclusion that she and many of her family members are shadowshapers, people who are able to control spirits by giving them form through art, basically causing their art to literally come alive. Robbie, also a shadowshaper, shows her how to use her power and it soon becomes clear that she has a natural talent for shaping. However, Dr. Wick, an academic who studies the supernatural, including shadowshaping, seeks to destroy the shadowshapers and take all their power for himself. Sierra must find a way to stop Wick and save her powers, her friends and family, and herself in order to take her destined place among the shadowshapers.

Shadowshaper is the urban fantasy I didn’t know I wanted until I read it. Beyond the story, which is fresh and suspenseful, this book has some serious meat on its bones. Themes covered include art as power, gentrification, gender equality, body image, cultural diversity, colonialism, and on and on. Sierra, the narrator, is strong yet insecure, street smart but not jaded, artistic and modern and impeccably written. I had to remind myself that a man was writing this character! I think he was a teenage girl in a past life. Read chapter 12 and you’ll know what I mean.

Daniel Jose Older has set the bar for contemporary urban fiction. I’ll be book talking the shit out of this book at my juvenile detention visits from now on.

Read alikes

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor


NaNoReadMo: When I Was the Greatest

when I was the greatest

When I Was the Greatest
Jason Reynolds
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
January 2014

Ali, who lives in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, with his mother, Doris, and sister, Jazz, is an amateur boxer and pretty good kid considering his circumstances. He often takes care of Jazz while his mother is at work, and he befriends the brothers next door, Needles and Noodles. Noodles always seems to be looking for trouble – stealing, fighting, skipping school – but Noodles, who has Tourettes Syndrome, just wants to knit with the needles that Doris gave to him to help him focus and control his symptoms. Ali struggles with doubts about his boxing abilities, and Noodles and Needles deal with absent parents and where their next meal will come from, but otherwise they run wild in their neighborhood, causing pretty low-stakes trouble. That is until their friend Tasha invites the boys to an adult party, with alcohol and everything, and even Noodles couldn’t have expected the trouble they get into.

Urban fiction is a genre that I don’t think gets nearly enough love. In my work as an outreach librarian in Boston, I work with a lot of Black and Hispanic teens, particularly in Boston’s juvenile detention centers, who want to see themselves, their neighborhoods (or one similar to them), and their problems reflected in the books they read. Critical acclaim and writing comes secondary to the story, the setting, and their ability to relate to the characters. When I Was the Greatest, with its strong first-person narrative, realistic setting complete with tenement apartments, absentee parents, bodegas, and gangs, provides the best of both worlds. Also, Noodles, Needles and Ali get into trouble but not that much trouble, making this a great introduction to urban fiction for younger YA readers and uninitiated adults alike.

Read alikes and other good urban fiction for teens:

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
The Contender by Robert Lipsyte
Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older (urban fantasy!!!)
The Bluford High series by various authors