Daniel José Older first came to prominence with his adult urban fantasy series, the Bone Street Rumba, before switching gears with the YA-oriented Shadowshaper series, both of which feature diverse casts and settings inspired by the author’s Cuban-American heritage. In Dactyl Hill Squad, Older kicks off a new middle grade series, which blends alternate history, fantasy, and dinosaurs in a fast-paced adventure set during the American Civil War in New York City, with a group of orphans facing off against slavers and other perils. PW caught up with Older to ask a few questions about how he came up with such a wild premise, and what comes next.
What inspired this particular story?
I was doing research on the Crow Hill neighborhood in Brooklyn for a different project that ended up being a rock opera. The Brooklyn Historical Society gave me a grant to basically go into their archives to see what I might find useful. At the time, I lived in Crown Heights, which was part of what used to be called Crow Hill. I thought it was kind of fascinating that there’s this whole history of these autonomous, mostly black communities in early Brooklyn, of people escaping from the racial violence that included the Civil War draft riots. That moment in history spoke a lot to me about what’s going on right now with things like gentrification and police violence.
I started exploring that time period and the neighborhood. There was so much there, in terms of people really being heroes. And there’s so little in popular media about people of color in American history. They tend to be erased or are victims or bad guys, and I wanted to change that narrative in a fun and fantastical way in a kids’ book. So, dinosaurs! The idea of kids riding on pterodactyl-back from rooftop to rooftop in 1863 Brooklyn is what really got me super excited about this project. I thought it would give me leeway to not worry too much about the historical accuracy, but instead I got completely obsessed with the details, and just wanted to read all the history books. This turned out to be much more grounded that I would have imagined.
The great thing is this is a series. Everything that I didn’t get a chance to put in here is pretty much going into one of the other books. Originally, I figured they’d end up going down south to the battle lines of the Civil War. But there is a rich history of resistance and resilience in the Brooklyn communities of color, such as organizations like the Vigilance Committee, which literally saved New Yorkers from being kidnapped. There was more than enough for a book’s worth, so the characters ended up spending the entire time here, and they got to interact with all these different unsung heroes, who don’t show up in the history books nearly enough.
One of the strengths of this book is the diversity in your cast, especially for the time and place. What can you tell us about that?
I always approach the question of diversity more as a question of honesty. It’s about leaning into the truth that we don’t get to see enough of. It goes back to what I was saying about how few narratives we have in culture and in cinema and literature of characters of color being heroes in historical fiction. Part of the work of Dactyl Hill Squad is to explore the story that has been covered up because of white supremacist narratives, and the way that we tell history over and over. So that’s a big part of it.
Also, in the course of my research while I was working on the musical, I read this great book called In the Shadow of Slavery by Leslie Harris, which is an academic look at New York in that period and it talked about the Colored Orphan Asylum, which is where Magdalys and her friends live at the beginning, and there was this one little paragraph about a Cuban family, a trio of Cuban sisters who had been dropped off, stayed a couple of years, and then disappeared into history. That’s it. But as a Cuban, I was like, “There I am!” You’re always looking for yourself in history, and I think many of us have had to work the rest of the story out in our imaginations. But that’s where Magdalys came from.
What’s next for you in this series?
As we move into book two, Freedom Fighter, the characters actually do end up on the battle lines, down in Tennessee, and then further south. I got to game out how they’d use the various kinds of dinosaurs in battle, and it’s a great adventure. I also have an adult novel coming out from Imprint, called the Book of Lost Saints. It’s about the Cuban diaspora, history, and memory, and it’s narrated by the spirit of a woman who disappeared during the Cuban revolution.
So besides “dinosaurs are awesome,” what do you hope readers will take away from this book?
I really hope it transforms people’s understanding of history, and that they realize just how many protagonists of color there have been throughout history. If they are readers of color, I hope they understand they can be heroes, too. Also, I want people to realize that history can be fun, and it’s not just about dry textbooks, that history is alive today, and we’re still interacting with it in significant ways, such as the current conversations about Confederate statues. I’d like readers to have a more interactive relationship with history after they read this book.
Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older. Scholastic/Levine, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-338-26881-2