Daniel José Older is the bestselling author of the Shadowshaper Cypher, a YA fantasy series featuring Brooklyn teenager Sierra Santiago, as well as the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy trilogy. His first YA novel, Shadowshaper (Scholastic/Levine), was named a PW Best Book of the Year in 2015. The second book in the series, Shadowhouse Fall, releases this month. PW spoke recently with Older regarding counter-narratives, writing for teenagers, and the We Need Diverse Books movement.
You published a short-story collection and an urban fantasy novel before Shadowshaper was released. What inspired you to start writing YA?
Actually, I started with YA, it just took longer to get published. Shadowshaper was the first book I wrote, but it was before I had an agent. I actually submitted it to Scholastic, way back when I wrote it. That’s how they found it—I submitted it in the slush pile. And there were some edits to do, so it took a while.
So, I kept writing. I took a short story class. And that’s mostly where Salsa Nocturna came from—the short stories. And then Salsa Nocturna was how I developed the world of Bone Street Rhumba, and that became a trilogy. This is what I always tell my students: the best thing you can do when you’re waiting and on submission—in fact, what you have to do—is write the next book, or short story, or work on the next project, because that’s the only way to stay grounded in what matters, which is the work.
When you wrote Shadowshaper, did you intend for it to be the first book in a series?
I went back and forth. There were times when I could see a whole arc that went way past it, and there were times when I was like, “Nope! It’s just what it is.” It wasn’t until much later that I really had to ask myself, “Okay. Can we seriously do two more books? Is there really room for that in this story?” And the answer was definitely yes.
Do you approach writing for young adults differently than you do for adults?
Not too differently, no. I swear less, and there’s no sex in my YA, so there’s that.
That doesn’t mean that YA and adult [fiction] are the same animal, necessarily. There are considerations, I think, because you’re writing young characters and so they’re living different lives than adult characters, and that’s important. It can’t just be an adult arc thrown onto a kid; there have to be elements of what it means to come of age and grow up. But I’m very cautious not to condescend or dumb it down.
You deal with a number of important social issues in your books. Shadowshaper takes on gentrification, cultural appropriation, colorism, and the patriarchy; Shadowhouse Fall tackles racial profiling, police corruption and brutality, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Why is it important for young adult fiction to address these kinds of problems?
For the same reason it’s important for YA to address any problems, whether it’s the more standard ones that we’ve come to know as traditional coming-of-age stories or the type of stuff that I’m talking about in Shadowshaper, and that a lot of other great books have been talking about more recently. Kids go through this stuff. Young people are dealing today—and have always dealt in America—with astonishing levels of racism and sexism. The job of books is to be there for them, to provide some kind of map, or sense that they’re not alone in this—a language, even, to help them muddle through all the things that are happening. I think we really do young people a disservice when we try to shield them and pretend everything is all right, or they just have to get through it or [should] worry about something else. It’s recognizing that these are real things that young people go through, and they need to talk about them.
The plots of both Shadowshaper and Shadowhouse Fall are very timely. Do current events ever affect what you write on a given day?
You know, I wonder how timely they are, in the sense that police have been killing unarmed black people for as long as there have been police and unarmed black people. It’s not a new phenomenon. What’s new is that there’s protest around it, and so people are paying attention. So, in the sense of the kids being very tuned in to the protest movement around them, I think it is speaking to this moment, but in the sense of the state violence that’s going on, I think it’s sort of timeless, unfortunately.
What I love about these characters (besides that they’re like friends of mine, at this point) is they’re very on point from jump. They’re just ready to go. They’ve already had a lot of the conversations, and that’s what I know to be true of the young people I know. They’ve already figured a lot of this shit out, and we’re still kind of muddling through. And they’re mad, and they’re ready to raise their voices and take to the streets and do what has to be done to get justice.
You also teach creative writing to kids. Why is it important for teenagers to learn how to write fiction?
I think storytelling is our deepest form of expression. It’s something we all do as humans, and I think it very often saves our lives. It’s how we process the world. It’s how we understand things and muddle through the problems we’re going through, whether they’re personal problems or gigantic, world-changing problems. And I think that there’s a power to that, when we’re the ones telling our own story, that supersedes anything else. It’s very important that young people have the room and the space and the ability to tell their stories.
The adults in Sierra’s life not only support her and her friends, but fight alongside them. That’s a departure from the current YA norm. Was this a conscious decision, and if so, what incited it?
Community has always been a huge part of the Shadowshaper Cypher world from page one of the first book, and that is a very conscious choice. I think of it as a counter-narrative. Another trope that we see over and over is the one-and-only, the singular, the chosen one, as opposed to the many, the multitude, the community. A lot of us are here today because of our community. That’s what saved our lives over and over—not being singular, one-and-only characters, but being people who are connected and interdependent with a vast network of other people who lift us up with love and support in different ways. I think we’re seeing it now more in YA, which I’m really excited about, but it was something I wasn’t seeing a lot when I wrote Shadowshaper and it’s something I wanted to be very intentional about including in my series. [Sierra] is surrounded by amazing, complex friends and family. Her neighborhood, itself, is a character, and it’s full of characters who are there for her in different ways.
Your series protagonist, Sierra Santiago, is an Afro-Latina teenager. How did you go about finding her voice?
It was a really challenging experience as a writer. I’m Latino, I’m not Afro-Latino. And I’m not a girl, and I’m not a teenager. There are ways that we intersect, for sure—I certainly was a drawing fanatic when I was her age, and that’s a part of myself that I gave to her. But there are a lot of ways that we aren’t the same, and I had to take those the most seriously as I was moving forward. To me, the most important skill in that process is listening, and I think it’s one that we’re not taught well enough in writing classes—it’s not emphasized enough. We have to learn how to listen, to really be quiet, to stop trying to protect ourselves and our identities and actually hear what the people around us are saying.
If I’m really taking the process of writing a black Latina girl character seriously, then I have to listen to the black Latina girls and women around me. And that means challenging myself, too, and seeing where I’ve tried to protect myself in the text, or create a character that’s simply a counter-narrative but not a human, or that isn’t a counter-narrative at all and simply plays into stereotypes. There are so many pitfalls, but ultimately, it’s about treating that character with the same love and humanity that you would any other and being very aware of the fact that there are many ways to do this wrong and very few to do it right. And all of those ways of doing it right involve listening to the people around you.
The Shadowshaper novels are populated with strong, smart women. Do these characters have real-life inspirations?
I’m surrounded by strong, smart women, that’s for sure, and that certainly plays a part in it.
On the one hand, I think there is a certain intentionality that goes into it in terms of undermining stereotypes and creating counter-narratives to the same story that we’re told over and over, whether it’s about race or gender. But I also think there’s an element of it that’s simply about writing the world as we see it—as we know it to be true. We were raised on the narrative of the woman that needs to be saved. When I’m looking around, I don’t see any women that need to be saved, and so they don’t appear in my books.
You’re a strong proponent of the We Need Diverse Books movement, which pushes for children’s and YA literature to be more inclusive. Do you think that the publishing world is making any progress in that regard?
Definitely a lot of progress, [but] there’s a long way to go. It’s been an amazing couple of years, mostly because, first and foremost, women of color stepped up to the plate and made their voices heard in a very loud, impressive, consistent way. The analysis coming from the We Need Diverse Books people and all the folks calling for that change has always been very sharp, nuanced, and complex, and the response generally tends to be a form of shut-down, or an expression that involves us all being one loud scream.
Beyond these writers taking a risk to speak out, they did the work of organizing and turning it into something that is sustained. [It’s] not just a hashtag that appears, trends, and then disappears; the work continues. That’s really incredible. And it’s not just in literature. Ultimately, it’s about the stories that we tell ourselves, telling the truth about the world we live in, and not some fabricated, white savior bullshit.
What message do you hope readers take away from the Shadowshaper novels?
I hope people feel empowered to tell their own stories. I hope they find solace in the power of art and the community around them. And I hope they feel like there are ways out of this mess that we’re living through right now—friendship, or the act of creation, or figuring out something about your life that you were struggling with. It’s not always going to be that we win every battle, or that we topple every evil empire; sometimes, victory is found in these small moments. And that’s important—there’s power to that.
Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older. Scholastic/Levine, Sept. ISBN 978-0-545-95282-8