“The trouble with magic,” wrote children’s author and activist Zetta Elliott in an award-winning 2013 Jeunesse essay, “is that it appears to exist in realms to which only certain children belong.”
The near absence of young people of color in the speculative genres — that is, science fiction, fantasy, fairy tales and comics — has become a concern for many children’s literature critics. Therefore, it has been a sheer delight to bear witness to the emergence of some diverse authors of young adult speculative fiction over the past several years. While these additions to the market have been long overdue, the dearth of fantasy and science fiction protagonists who are not white, cisgender, heterosexual and middle class or wealthy remains problematic, because magical possibilities and fantastic futures are necessary for every tween and teen. Diversifying the fantastic is a critical step in the development of young people’s imaginations and the shaping of their consciousness.
Two exciting new young adult debut novels are set in multicultural urban neighborhoods that will ring familiar for many teens and young adults. In “Shadowshaper” and “More Happy Than Not,” Latino teens are no longer at the margins of speculative fiction or urban life but are masterfully navigating the tightropes of coming of age while wrestling with myriad identities, the spectacular central figures of their own fantastic stories.
Daniel José Older’s “Shadowshaper” (Arthur A. Levine Books: 304 pp., $17.99, ages 14-up) introduces us to Sierra Santiago, a heroine as memorable as Hermione Granger and as admirable as Katniss Everdeen. As her beloved Grandpa Lázaro languishes on the cusp between death and life, Sierra is chased through Brooklyn by a mysterious undead man who somehow knows her name. Alongside her dear friend and fellow artist, Robbie the Walking Mural, Sierra embarks on a journey to discover the magic known as shadowshaping.
Soon Sierra and her friends are tasked with uncovering the whereabouts of Lucera, a mysterious spirit who may hold the answers for those trying to kill all the shadowshapers in the city. Piecing together clues from childhood memories and her own family history, Sierra is soon drawn into the journey — and the battle — of a lifetime.
As breathtaking as the fantasy elements of “Shadowshaper” are, Sierra’s tale is grounded in a real-world setting that will be appealing to even the most reluctant fantasy readers. The strength of Older’s tale is in his meticulous attention to the details of the life of a brown-skinned, natural-haired Puerto Rican teenage girl. While the untranslated Spanish interspersed throughout the dialogue adds to the cultural authenticity of “Shadowshaper,” I found myself longing for a “cast of characters” appendix like those found at the end of many fantasy novels. I also wanted a map of Sierra’s magic-infused Brooklyn. Older’s storytelling is rich enough to warrant such treatment, because this is a world that will stay with readers long after the last page.
Another important addition to speculative fiction for young adults is Adam Silvera’s “More Happy Than Not” (Soho Press: 304 pp., $18.99, ages 14-up). In contrast to Older’s Sierra, who is confronted with the mystery of a weeping mural on the first page, Silvera’s Aaron lives in a near-future Bronx where the Leteo Institute (named for the Spanish translation of Lethe, the Greek goddess of forgetfulness) lingers ominously in the background of the narrative for most of the novel.
Wrestling with the aftermath of his father’s suicide and a subsequent failed attempt on his own life, Aaron Soto is trying to piece together the world he once knew. His best friend, Brendan, has become more distant. His girlfriend, Genevieve, has provided the solace that Aaron needed through his troubles but travels away to summer arts camp.
Then Aaron meets Thomas — new to the neighborhood, quirky, obsessed with movies, and infinitely interested in the details of Aaron’s life. Aaron finds himself suddenly falling for his new friend, but Thomas doesn’t see Aaron the same way. Suddenly, the “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"-style promises of the Leteo Institute seem more enticing than frightening — possibly the only solution that will allow Aaron to live with himself. The final third of the novel reveals the Twilight Zone-like truth of what really happened.
“More Happy Than Not” is two novels in one. The first is Aaron’s sexual awakening and coming of age. The second poses an important ethical question: Even if our culture had the technology to wipe away people’s unpleasant memories, should we do so? The reader’s first glimpses inside the Leteo Institute don’t come until the final third of the novel, which provides quite the payoff after a slow unfolding. Silvera’s tale combines the best features of science fiction with social justice in this engaging read, as Aaron finds a place where he belongs.
Thomas is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and is co-editor of “Reading African American Experiences in the Obama Era.”