Book Review: Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older

Reviewed by Ashley Hope Pérez

This review of Shadowhouse Fall, book #2 in the Shadowshaper Cypher series, is based on an advance reader’s edition.

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: The extraordinary sequel to the New York Times bestseller Shadowshaper is daring, dazzling, defiant.

Sierra and her friends love their new lives as shadowshapers, making art and creating change with the spirits of Brooklyn. Then Sierra receives a strange card depicting a beast called the Hound of Light — an image from the enigmatic, influential Deck of Worlds. The shadowshapers know their next battle has arrived.

Thrust into an ancient struggle with enemies old and new, Sierra and Shadowhouse are determined to win. Revolution is brewing in the real world as well, as the shadowshapers lead the fight against systems that oppress their community. To protect her family and friends in every sphere, Sierra must take down the Hound and master the Deck of Worlds… or risk losing them all.

MY TWO CENTSShadowhouse Fall adds depth to the fantasy world first introduced in Older’s acclaimed first YA novel, Shadowshaper. Perhaps more remarkable is how the second book in the series plugs into urgent conversations about racialized violence, white supremacy, and youth activism. Picking up a few months after the events at the end of Shadowshaper, Shadowhouse Fall probes the challenges of leading a secret society once the novelty and adrenaline have worn off—and after the school year begins again. Sierra Santiago’s role as Lucera, leader of the shadowshapers, already requires more energy than she feels she has, and that’s before factoring in complications on the romantic front, a death in the family, and the fatigue that comes from confronting daily racial microaggressions, such as being sent to the principal for diagnosing an instance of white privilege, the dehumanizing experience of passing through metal detectors to enter school, and regular police harassment in public spaces. These challenges intensify further when the appearance of the Deck of Worlds throws the spiritual realm into upheaval and when inappropriate police detention of shadowshapers leads to widespread youth protest.

Although readers are unlikely to share Sierra’s exact configuration of demands, they will relate to the complex dance between the demands of school, family, activism, and spirituality or self-discovery. Sierra’s fatigue and loneliness—even in the midst of her friends—are beautifully rendered, as are the irritability and impulsiveness that sometimes results. (Rendering a character’s struggle honestly without abrading her likability is no small feat.) Older shows that some real allies may be found in conventional figures like the school principal, but he also shows the difficulty of navigating complex, culturally sensitive problems that cannot be shared in school spaces without drawing judgment. There’s a real tenderness and humanity to how Older depicts Sierra as she navigates the difficult emotional territory that comes with the winding down of one romantic interest and the kindling of a new one.

The world of spirits in Shadowhouse Fall gains further particularity and interest from the growing detail about the rise (and fall) of different houses to how Older reveals how the Shadowshapers’ rival spirit house, the House of Light, depends on mythologies of whiteness to bolster its power. Readers drawn to complex, powerful heroines who actually reflect on the consequences of their actions will find much to like in Sierra’s fierce leadership and in her desire to make responsible use of her gifts. I was moved by Older’s tender portrayal of varied connections between spirits and the living.

Here, as in Shadowshaper, the cast of characters is varied and vibrant. The intergenerational, multi-ethnic coalitions that support action in the spirit world and on the streets of Bed-Stuy offer a welcome reprieve from the all-teen world manufactured in many YA novels. Sure, the villains can sometimes seem one-dimensional in their power-hungry myopia, but the density of nuance in characterization more than makes up for this. Older has a knack for evoking cultural particularity and evading stereotype, a talent evident in characterization and in dialogue. Readers encounter a range of English vernaculars, Haitian Creole, Jamaican Patois, and Spanish, and Older strategically breaks down presumed configurations of class and culture. For example, we see a Jamaican attorney deftly navigate multiple registers, making strategic use of his “lawyerly courtroom voice” when needed but electing to speak in Patois in most situations. The intergenerational friendships in the novel highlight the resourcefulness of multi-ethnic communities and the transmission of tactical knowledge.

Just as adults in the novel display their linguistic dexterity in a range of settings, so do Sierra and her friends. Sierra’s voice emerges equally authentically when she is bantering and strategizing with her fellow shadowshapers, sweet-talking a romantic interest, or, speaking truth to power in her AP History class. This latter moment merits a closer look.

Since you asked: I think you’re being defensive. No one wants to represent a whole bunch of other people, but the truth is, we have to do that all the time, and as much as you want to be treated as an individual, we still see all the other teachers who have shut us down and don’t want to talk about things that matter to us. So when you try to tell us to be reasonable, we’re looking at the fact that it’s slavery we’re talking about, possibly the least reasonable thing to happen in this country, and so all these people whose great-grandparents directly benefited from it telling us to be reasonable doesn’t sit well, and we’re tired of being told how to respond.

I plan to hold this mini monologue up in response to anyone who suggests that the novel’s frank engagement with structural inequality and the frequent injustice of the criminal justice system “lacks balance.” It would take a shipping crate full of interventions of the caliber of Shadowhouse Fall to even begin to balance the pervasive practice of centering white experiences, white priorities, and white perspectives that circulate in YA. And anyway, the novel offers powerful examples of what it means to own one’s privilege and act as an ally, from a teacher’s turnaround to the white students who answer to Sierra’s charge to action. (This is a great scene: one character tells another, “You gotta tell the whole world that white kids ain’t cool with this shit either,” and a few chapters later, we see a group of white students show up with a sign that reads, “White Kids Ain’t Cool With This Shit Either.” It’s a moment of humor amidst heightening tensions—“Yo, y’all real literal,” responds one of the shadowshapers–but it also shows the ongoing apprenticeship of allies who wish to act for social justice.)

Shadowhouse Fall centers on the shadowshapers’ growing self-awareness and efforts to develop their gifts to enable effective action in the world of spirits and of streets. Theirs is an example we would all do well to follow.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Shadowhouse Fall, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORDaniel José Older is the New York Times bestselling author of the Young Adult series the Shadowshaper Cypher (Scholastic), the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series (Penguin), and the upcoming Middle Grade sci-fi adventure Flood City (Scholastic). He won the International Latino Book Award and has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize, the Mythopoeic Award, the Locus Award, the Andre Norton Award, and yes, the World Fantasy Award. Shadowshaper was named one of Esquire’s 80 Books Every Person Should Read. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at http://danieljoseolder.net/, on youtube and @djolder on twitter.

 

2012AuthorPhoto500pixelsABOUT THE REVIEWER:  Ashley Hope Pérez is a writer and teacher passionate about literature for readers of all ages—especially stories that speak to diverse Latinx experiences. She is the author of three novels, What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and Out of Darkness (2015), which won a Printz Honor as well as the Tomás Rivera Book Award and the Américas Book Award. She is working on a fourth novel, Walk It Down, which is forthcoming from Dutton Books. A native of Texas, Ashley has since followed wherever writing and teaching lead her and currently is an assistant professor at The Ohio State University, where she teaches world literatures. Find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Book Review: Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe

Reviewed by Sujei Lugo and Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Jean-Michel Basquiat and his unique, collage-style paintings rocketed to fame in the 1980s as a cultural phenomenon unlike anything the art world had ever seen. But before that, he was a little boy who saw art everywhere: in poetry books and museums, in games and in the words that we speak, and in the pulsing energy of New York City. Award-winning illustrator Javaka Steptoe’s vivid text and bold artwork that echoes Basquiat’s own introduce young readers to the powerful message that art doesn’t always have to be neat or clean—and definitely not inside the lines—to be beautiful.

OUR TWO CENTS:

Radiant Child is a heartfelt and vibrant picture book about the childhood and life of Puerto Rican-Haitian American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Written for young children, it celebrates Basquiat’s art and traces the early steps of his artistic formation, as he makes his way toward the pinnacle of fame. From boyhood, he begins developing his own “messy” style of art-making, one that evokes powerful personal emotions, while addressing the sound and fury of social and cultural politics. Javaka Steptoe received the 2017 Caldecott Medal for his work as the book’s illustrator, a fitting recognition of the dynamic and engaging art seen in these pages.

The story in Radiant Child shifts through various New York City settings, including interiors of the Basquiat family home in Brooklyn, the exhibit spaces of an art museum, the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the artist’s studio. As a boy, Basquiat sees art everywhere he looks, not just in the museums he visits with his mother or in the poetry books she reads to him, but also in everyday objects that he encounters around the city. Early on, while other children in the neighborhood skip rope, young Basquiat “dreams of being a famous ARTIST.” You can tell how seriously he has devoted himself to this dream by the pencils, papers, and drawings scattered all over his bedroom.

Throughout childhood, the primary influencer on Basquiat’s art is his mother, Matilde, a Puerto Rican woman who “designs and sews,” and sometimes even joins her child in the act of drawing. Her artistic influence on him is not always intentional. After a car accident leaves Jean-Michel injured, Malide introduces him to Gray’s Anatomy. Her hope is to teach the young boy how the human body is knit together. Little does she anticipate that the diagrams from this book will seep into his catalog of artistic imagery and emerge as motifs in his mature work. In addition to taking Jean-Michel to museums, Matilde also conveys the message that art can be found in ordinary things, including the “messy patchwork of the city.” This sets up an interesting parallel, in which Basquiat, an Afro-Latino child of humble beginnings with no formal education in the arts, is shaped by the traditional, elitist, and largely white institutions of the New York art world, yet simultaneously absorbs the powerful visual elements inherent in his own cultural milieu. In the book’s museum scene, it is fascinating to note that his favorite work of art is Picasso’s “Guernica,” an immense painting that depicts the horrors of the Nazi bombing of the Basque people during the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps it is before this very painting that the boy begins to develop ideas about artistic self-expression as a major force in the world.

Tragically, when Basquiat’s mother suffers debilitating mental illness and is hospitalized, this shatters the circle of love that fed the young boy’s artistic growth. He continues living with his father, Gerard, but “things are not the same,” and as a teenager, Jean-Michel runs off to live on his own in the “concrete jungle where only the tough survive.” There, he begins his career as a graffiti artist. Signing his work with SAMO©, Basquiat creates street art that captivates the city and propels him from the streets to the galleries. Fame follows, just as the young boy dreamed, and this is where the story portion of Radiant Child ends. The book’s back matter, however, includes a substantial section that acknowledges Basquiat’s drug addiction and untimely death at 27.

How does a children’s illustrator depict the life and oeuvre of such a celebrated artist? As explained in an author’s note, Javaka Steptoe answers this challenge not by reproducing, but by reinterpreting Basquiat’s work. The result is original and memorable, yet strongly evocative of Basquiat’s signature style. Steptoe achieves this by employing the graffiti and collage methods that his subject used, in combination with traditional painting techniques, and by incorporating symbols and motifs associated with Basquiat, such as stylized human skulls and femurs.

Each page spread in Radiant Child is a small construction consisting of a scene painted over a textured background. For his background materials, Steptoe relies heavily on found objects, primarily throwaways. Due to their worn condition, these objects call to mind the crumbling cityscape of 1980s Lower East Side—one of Basquiat’s stomping grounds. The repurposed materials include wooden slats salvaged from dumpsters, and Steptoe glorifies the raw condition of these slats by assembling them into rough jigsaw-puzzle surfaces, in which each nail hole and splintered edge contributes to the painted illustration’s lively texture. Steptoe enhances the textured effect by collaging photographs over select areas, presenting pockets of visual intrigue for readers to explore.

Although this is a picture book, the rich inspiration it offers should not be denied to older kids. Native children and children of color stand to benefit the most from such exposure. In witnessing Basquiat’s artistic journey, we also arrive at a greater appreciation of the soothing power of art. We see that artistic creativity can act as a therapeutic exercise in the face of pain, fear, separation, and insecurity. Radiant Child also delivers the unmistakable and essential message that messiness and art-making go hand in hand, and that although the results may be “sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, [it’s] somehow still beautiful.” Indeed, this message is joyously inscribed on every page, in every scribble, and through every splintered and splattered collage.

THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR

As the son of award-winning illustrator John Steptoe, Javaka Steptoe grew up surrounded by art and children’s books, and went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. In his own career, the younger Steptoe has captured many honors, including the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, as well as recognition from the NAACP Image Awards, and the 2017 Caldecott Medal. Read more about him at his official website.

 

FURTHER READING AND VIEWING

In its final pages, Radiant Child appends information on portions of Basquiat’s life not covered in the story, including a section detailing motifs and symbols that appear in his work.

The publisher Little Brown provides an informative page on Radiant Child. There, you can view a book chat with Javaka Steptoe and watch an embedded video of a live art demo he shared on New York Times’s Facebook page.

Here is an additional interview with Steptoe, conducted by Travis Jonker, of School Library Journal, for the series “The Yarn,” which looks closely at how kids’ books are made.

For anyone interested in further exploration of Basquiats’s world, abundant online and print resources exist, although they are primarily aimed at adult readers. Here is a sampling.

Basquiat’s friend and one-time roommate Alexis Adler talks on video about photos she took of him. See it here.

Read an illuminating conversation with Basquiat, published in Interview Magazine in 1983.

The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat maintains a website devoted to his life and work. Visit it here.