Fan­tas­tic worlds drawn with in­clu­sive flair

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Ebony El­iz­a­beth Thomas 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.”

“Thetrou­ble 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 “Shadow shaper” 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 “Shadow shaper” (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 shadow shap­ing.

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 shadow shapers in the city. Piec­ing to­gether clues from child­hood mem­o­ries and her own fam­ily history, Sierra is soon drawn into the jour­ney— andthe bat­tle— of a life­time.

As breath­tak­ing as the fan­tasy el­e­ments 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 abrown-skinned, nat­u­ral-haired Puerto Ri­can teenage girl. While the un­trans­lated Span­ish in­ter­spersed through­out the di­a­logue adds to the cul­tural au­then­tic­ity of “Shadow shaper,” 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 a dults 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 theworld 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.

Mar­gotWood Soho Teen

A SCI-FI mys­tery in Adam Silvera’s “More Happy Than Not.”

Arthur A. Levine / Scholas­tic

cour­ses through Daniel José Older’s “Shad­ow­shaper.”

Ash­ley Ford Arthur A. Levine Books


Soho Teen

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