YA Book Review: Romance, Fantasy, and Social Justice in Shadowshaper

August Review: Shadowshaper By Daniel Jose Older

Daniel Jose Older’s young adult fantasy novel Shadowshaper (Published by Scholastic, Inc. 2015) accomplishes a great deal in under 300 pages. On the surface, Older weaves an exciting, at times creepy plot featuring magic and romance. On a deeper level, he tactfully addresses several issues at the intersection of race, self-esteem, and body image for his main character Sierra Santiago. There is a lot for young, as well as adult readers, to analyze in Shadowshaper. Older raises important questions related to the ethics of anthropology, asking readers: Who gets to study whom, and why?

Main character, Sierra Santiago, slowly uncovers her family’s secret history of magical “shadowshaping.” She, along with some of her family members and friends, has the power to bring ancestral spirits to life through her grafitti. While strengthening a connection to her magical heritage, she also solidifies her confidence and self-love as a Puerto Rican girl, confidence which has been threatened by the racism, colorism, and gentrification around her. She refuses to give in to suggestion that she tame her “wild” hair, or find a lighter-skinned boy to date. The author manages to weave these empowering and important messages into the plot in a natural and effective way, allowing his main character to drive home his ideas for him.

Sierra is placed at the center of the battlefield and the mystery, forced to uncover the truth in order to protect her family from the antagonist, Wick, a man who studied her family’s magic only to steal it for his own purposes. Sierra handles difficult situations admirably, while at the same time, she is a very believable and fully human character. 

This is a “high interest, low reading level” book. The target audience is teenagers, but the reading level is accessible for younger ages. An advanced middle grade reader might enjoy this book, and a struggling teenage reader may find it is to his or her taste without being too challenging. The novel takes place in a present-day Brooklyn summer, providing our valley-native readers with a taste of the city life and a new perspective on experiences of summer. This is decidedly a fantasy novel, full of magical elements, but it also has a high-paced plot which could appeal to mystery lovers. I recommend it especially for teens who enjoy fantasy romance novels and can withstand some creepy, possibly frightening elements as well.


Emily Butler
Emily moved to western Massachusetts to study English as an undergraduate at UMass Amherst. She has a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Simmons College and works in a high school library in the Pioneer Valley. Emily was drawn to the library field due to its interdisciplinary nature and the ways in which libraries enrich the social and intellectual life of communities. She shares her passion for writing and education to connect community members with learning opportunities through Hilltown Families.

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