An appreciation of Sierra from Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper

Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper is a lesson in a lot of things, depending on how you want to read it. Creating mythos, writing developed and dimensional background characters, building an intriguing mystery, worldbuilding — well, not so much worldbuilding as putting Brooklyn on the page and walking you around in it during the heat of the day so you get a little grime in your sweat — but the best part is easily his protagonist, Sierra. She feels like a real person, but handles her teen insecurities and family drama (and you know, supernatural troubles) with a confidence and determination that is just damn lovely. She loves herself, big fro and big butt included, and even though she lets other people make her wonder here and there, she quickly realizes they’re wrong and she’s awesome just how she is.

There’s a glorious bit where she finally snaps at her irritating, unhappy, racist aunt and it will have you cheering out loud. She calls out the cute boy for behaving badly, no matter how cute he is or how good an artist. He has to respect her and act like it, or get out. She gets mad and stays mad about long-kept family secrets, especially as things get more dangerous because of them. I love that she doesn’t just get mad at the start and then it sort of just gets dropped as the story unfolds, like so many other books. On the flip side, she doesn’t wallow in it, or whine about unfairness, because she’s got shit to do, whether people help or not. As in reality, that hurt and anger bubbles up every so often when something reminds her about it, which, given that the family secrets are a central plotline, is fairly often.

Sierra is fully self-confident, but not without occasional doubts about herself. She’s not overbearing or the dreaded “sassy” or “fiery Latina” so stereotypically plunked onto story pages. Nah. She’s a real girl, with many complicated and contradictory feelings, capable of thought and changing her mind. Unlike many a YA protagonist, she’s pretty happy with her life. She has good and loyal friends, gets along pretty well with her mom, and is a good artist. She’s got a pretty nice summer ahead of her, hanging out with her friends and working on her dragon mural. Plans change when she starts getting chased by possessed corpses and angry spirits. Dropped at the center of this supernatural situation, she gets pissed and repeatedly frustrated when several people who clearly know what’s up still won’t talk to her, but she doesn’t get angsty or whiny about it, she simply follows her own leads and starts figuring bits out for herself.

In the midst of this world of magic and spirits, Older grounds the story in the very real world of Brooklyn through the eyes of a girl who’s grown up there. Old men playing dominoes, sleazy catcallers, neighbors she’s known her whole life, and various marks of gentrification make up Sierra’s world and inform who she is and how she reacts. She’s smart, intuitive, tough, but still full of feelings. She trusts herself, but also knows when she needs help. She knows when someone isn’t treating her right and she calls them on it. She’s a character I wish I’d had as a kid, quite honestly.

Two quick things before I go: the way the shadowshaper magic works is awesome. I adore the idea of living art, and I want to see spirits dancing around the walls of a club, please. And, shoutout to Sierra’s Uncle Neville, who she goes to when she needs someone crafty who won’t ask questions. I love Uncle Neville.

Anyway. That’s it. If you have a pre-teen or teen girl, put this book in her hands. If you have a teen or pre-teen boy, put this book in his hands. If you enjoy good books and want to feel like you’re chilling in Brooklyn on a sorta dangerous summer night, put this book in your own hands. I’ll just be waiting for the next one to come out, because thankfully, there will be a next one!


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