As a poet and lover of music, fiction, and other creative media, I’ve always considered art to be magical.
There is something fantastic about how a poem or a song goes from the creator to another person and makes them connect to things. In Daniel José Older’s urban fantasy Shadowshaper, Sierra Santiago uses art to reclaim her magical heritage and strengthen her community.
Set in Brooklyn, New York, Sierra Santiago is an Afro-Latina teenager who just wants to enjoy her summer vacation with her friends. When she notices a neighborhood mural fading and the expression of the subject growing sad and angry, she is urged to finish her own mural by Manny, a friend of her grandfather Lazáro. Then, a walking corpse of a neighborhood man crashes a summer party and Sierra is thrust into the magical world of the shadowshapers. In order to protect her loved ones, Sierra must uncover the shadowshapers’ connection to her family and become a shadowshaper herself.
As an urban fantasy book, the real world manages to feel just as wonderful as the magical world. This is mainly due to the wonderful cast of characters that make up the people in Sierra’s life and the personal backgrounds that they come from. Two of my personal favorite characters were Tee and Izzy, lesbian girlfriends that were funny and loyal. Other favorites included Sierra’s Uncle Neville and Sierra’s intelligent, fashion opposite friend Bennie.
Besides their personalities, each character has a way of speaking that feels magical. One bit of dialogue that caught my attention features a back-and-forth between a group of domino-playing older gentlemen that were friends of Sierra’s grandpa Lazáro. In chapter six, Sierra pays them a visit and hears the following:
“Trouble at school, Sierra?” asked Mr. Jean-Louise. “Public school is a cesspool of poisonous bile.”
Manny threw his hands up, “¡Cállate, viejo!The child needs her education. Don’t ruin it for her just because you dropped out of kindergarten.”
Since the characters have strong ties to each other and their neighborhood, having the magical world of shadowshaping just underneath it makes them even more memorable. Shadowshaping involves giving spirits of departed loved ones and ancestors a physical form by fusing them with art. For Sierra and the other shadowshapers she encounters, the art is mainly visual, but shadowshaping can also be done through other creative means such as storytelling. The purpose of shadowshaping is to remember those who have come before and recently passed, preserving the past and present for the future generations.
Shadowshapertakes these things a step further by using the magic of shadowshaping to fight back against forces that try to eradicate an entire heritage. Protagonist Sierra Santiago must learn not only about shadowshaping, but also to stand up for the neighborhood and the culture that makes her who she is.
In the real world, we already use art to remember and pass on the memories, traditions, and cultures of departed loved ones. Murals painted around cities become memorials and certain songs are sung, listened to, and written in tribute. However,
At the same time that the shadowshapers are being eradicated, Sierra’s multi-cultural neighborhood is experiencing gentrification. Places that Sierra and her friends used to go to are being transformed into establishments for white, middle class consumers. When the book opens, Sierra is in the middle of painting a mural on a building known as The Tower, a large-scale incomplete building that looms over the junklot where Manny and his friends play dominos. It is later revealed that Manny has a connection to the shadowshapers and that Sierra painting the mural was his way of trying to protect the neighborhood and the remaining shadowshapers.
Not only is Sierra fighting a battle within her own neighborhood, but she is also fighting an internal battle as well. Although she is confident in herself, there are times that she doesn’t feel she is enough of an Afro-Latina girl. Tía Rosa, her aunt, makes comments that contain anti-blackness and colorism (i.e. discrimination based on how light or dark one’s skin tone is). She says that Sierra’s friend Robbie is too dark and that Sierra’s hair is too nappy. In addition, Sierra also deals with sexual harassment while walking around her neighborhood, being shamed by her mom for her interest in shadowshaping, and sexism as a female shadowshaper.
Given all that Sierra experiences in her daily life, her heroic journey is deeply compelling. Sierra uses her artistic talent and shadowshaping to protect her neighborhood and reclaim a magical heritage she learns to appreciate through her family and friends. As a poet, I can’t help but admire Sierra Santiago and see part of myself in her. With paintbrush and chalk, Sierra Santiago shows that an artist can be a hero, a creative making something from shadows in order to express herself and preserve and protect what is important.
The hashtag trends. A status, copied and pasted, is shared: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Soon, the status is altered – “women” becomes “people” to be more inclusive. Depending on your platform, depending on your connections, sometimes the message is simple. Sometimes people customize with a personal story, an identifying detail. Some are explicit. Some call out names. A spreadsheet circulates, disappears, and reappears. A blot of mold blooms. The stomach roils.
Amidst the outpouring of #MeToo, some women begin to talk about why they don’t hashtag, why they don’t share. Even though they are in the #MeToo (who isn’t, they wonder?) – what does or doesn’t count as serious enough to stand up and claim your space? One woman writes in to an advice column that #MeToo is triggering, an additional reminder of her rape everywhere she goes. Some people are private about certain parts of their lives, and even a cause like #MeToo isn’t likely to fundamentally change the way they use social media, especially with a part of their lives they’ve held soft and dear, cocooned close, and told very few.
In fairy tales, the wolf is never really a wolf, and no matter what he says, “hungry” isn’t quite what he means. If a man kisses you when you’re sleeping or dead, he thinks you’re beautiful and you’re meant to be together. If you want love, give up your voice for legs: you can either call out, or run – but not both. Who needs either anyway . . . it looks like a handsome prince is headed your way. Perhaps fairy tales are an archaic and covert version of #MeToo.
In my novella, Girling, girls grow up in the contemporary world, but the narrative is undergirded with a reflexive use of fairy tales. They navigate their own desires, but those wishes and dreams have been planted, dusted into the characters’ psyches by the world-as-it-is. The two main characters, Kate and Ann, best friends and almost-sisters, meet wolves and princes and try to discern which is which; they are disobedient girls, and princesses, and evil stepsisters all at once. Kate and Ann realize that fairy tales re-tell these same stories over and over; the hardest part is becoming a queen, which is why there are so few fairy tales that tell a story after marriage –they’ll learn this too.
In one chapter of the novella, Kate and Ann are spending an adolescent summer in Acapulco. They are both fourteen, the time of transformation. Sirens appear. Multiple versions of The Little Mermaid appear. Older Kate intrudes with a line from Eliot. Older Ann’s husband appears to rush around trying to show Kate a manatee. In that summer of fourteen, Kate is exploring her transformation to womanhood, wishing childhood would be quickly done. She’s snuck a bikini into her luggage (something her father wouldn’t allow her to wear at home) – and when they visit the resort hotels, she escapes to the bar and pretends she belongs there. Ann holds on a little more tightly to the child she still is, not quite ready to shed that potentially protective skin. Ann is also protected by her unwillingness to be seen, a glamour of awkwardness. Kate thinks she finds a Prince, but ends up on a pebbled beach, with an insistent frog who never turns into the stuff of young girls’ dreams. Later, Kate will try to tell her mother about this: about desire and shame and what’s she’s learned about their twining.
Kate would be hashtag conflicted. She would worry that her experiences aren’t serious enough for a #MeToo. Sure, there was that thing when she was little, but they were both kids really, so does that count? Sure, there was that thing when she was fourteen and he didn’t listen when she said No, but they were pretty close and maybe he didn’t hear her, or couldn’t stop? There was another time that would absolutely count, but nothing happened in the end, because . . . well, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened. Anyway, she’s fine. She’s lucky really. She worries more about Ann’s daughter, Luna; she worries about her.
I’ll be teaching contemporary women’s literature this spring, and I’m preparing my book order: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once upon a River.
I was talking with a colleague the other day, and he asked if I ever give a trigger warning for this class. These three novels all have at their center the rape of a child; the last time I taught this class, on the first day, I pointed that out to all the students. I told them why I chose these novels, why we needed to talk about these issues, and that I completely understood if they wanted to drop the class. That was a few years ago, the season of #YesAllWomen.
My colleague said, “But it’s a women’s literature class – do you really have to tell them you’ll be addressing the lives of women?”
It was Campbell’s Once upon a River that inspired me to write fiction in the first place, to try my hand at storytelling, moving from the forms of poetry, from the lyric and episodic, to the narrative.
In River, I met Margo Crane, a young female protagonist who survives, who stakes out on her own, learning to make her own way in the dangerous world, negotiating beast-men who could be alternatingly kind and cruel. If a woman’s love can turn a beast into a man, the tales suggest the opposite is also true. In that women’s literature class, I asked students to trace the underpinnings of fairy tales that moved through Margo’s story.
When my best friend, Carmen, to whom Girling is dedicated, had her daughter, I was driving in the car with her and her husband. They were talking about something – clothes, or toys, decorations, readying for her birthday party, and I was reading Cristina Bacchilega’s Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. “‘Girling’is a continual process,” I said, looking out the window, their baby asleep in the car seat. Her husband looked at me blinking; Carmen laughed a little – I was always saying things like that, apropos of nothing it seemed. Later, I tried to explain. Girling is my fuller attempt to explain.
At the end of that women’s literature class, I asked students to reflect on the three novels we’d read together. The class was mostly women, only a few men. The women allowed as to how they’d been glad to read all three novels, Allison especially, although that had been a difficult read. A necessarily difficult read. It was beautiful and brutal. The men were mostly quiet in this discussion. During that season of #YesAllWomen, a hashtag had answered back: #NotAllMen.
In this season, some have begun to use #HowIWillChange to respond to #MeToo. Many men have pledged to call out harassment, to challenge sexist jokes, to demand better of their friends, to listen when women tell their stories. The hope is that #MeToo isn’t just a conversation among women, because we’ve been having that conversation for a very long time. Perhaps someone –some friend, brother, father, beloved (whether he imagines himself a prince, dwarf, or beast) saw a woman he cared about post #MeToo and thought: I had no idea. Really? Her? Her Too?
As for Girling, I hope some friends, brothers, fathers, beloved princes, and beasts will read the book. They may find themselves there.
When people think of love, romantic love comes to mind. It is often tied with sexual attraction and the act of sex, seemingly inseparable.
As a result, asexual people who experience romantic attraction but not sexual attraction have a hard time explaining their identity to potential romantic partners as well as friends and family. In Claire Kann’s debut young adult novel Let’s Talk About Love the main lead is a Black biromantic asexual girl named Alice who is learning to redefine and appreciate the several types of love she experiences.
When it comes to asexuality, it is important to note that it exists on a spectrum that consists of a lack of sexual attraction as well as a lack of romantic attraction. Let’s Talk About Love features only one facet and experience of asexuality and should not be treated as a definitive text. However, there is no denying that it’s a notable book in more ways than one. Unlike most teen coming-of-age stories, this one is set in college during summer. This allows for a realistic, easygoing plot that focuses on self-discovery.
When the novel opens, Alice has just been dumped by her girlfriend Margot because she doesn’t understand Alice’s asexuality. Alice is especially hurt because Margot thinks that Alice doesn’t want to have sex with her because she doesn’t love her. Since Alice is already uncomfortable with being open with her asexuality, this breakup makes things worse. As a result, she has a hard time recognizing her feelings for her new library co-worker Takumi and dreads coming out to him.
With the help of a therapist, Alice starts to get in touch with her feelings, becomes closer to Takumi and her friends Fennie and Ryan, and starts moving out from under her parents’ career expectations. As she does this, she comes to realize the various types of love she is capable of experiencing and enjoying without giving in to heteronormative expectations. A fun aspect of this is Alice’s love for pop culture.
Although it’s not a major part of the book, Alice’s passion for pop culture is such a quirky and charming part of her character that you can’t help but smile. Thinking of love and passion in terms of how much you enjoy a thing is valuable; to see Alice do this so naturally is wonderful. She jokes about getting a degree in watching Netflix and Hulu. She cosplays as Velma Dinkley from Scooby Doo. It’s amusing and nice because it becomes something she shares with her friends and Takumi out of love for them.
In fact, Alice’s love for her friends Feenie and Ryan are just as powerful as her feelings for her love interest Takumi. In the book, she finds herself becoming a third wheel to Feenie and Ryan, slowly drifting apart from them as she spends more time with Takumi. After an incident where she feels her friends abandoned her, she and her friends become estranged until they have a talk about how they need to balance their relationships with each other.
It’s important to note Alice’s friendships.
Some young adult books focus on romance more than friendship, especially when romance is a major part of the plot. When a girl gets a love interest in a book like The Fault in Our Stars or Pushing the Limits, it feels like the girl’s entire world revolves around them. Another notable factor in this book is the rarity of having a Black female teen dealing with things like romance and friendship instead of extreme hardship. Although Alice does deal with microgressions, her personality is that of a carefree Black girl trying to happily live her life.
Meanwhile, Alice’s relationship with Takumi is notable because it evolves from friendship to romance. In fact, ninety-five percent of the book involves friendship. While this caused the romance scenes to be rushed at the end, having their friendship grow to romance works in Alice’s favor. Alice is allowed to figure out what exactly attracts her to Takumi, what type of attraction she feels for him, and how much she likes him versus how much she is attracted to him. Takumi is allowed to do the same and his relationship with Alice is all the better for it.
All in all, Let’s Talk About Love is a wonderful exploration of love in various forms. Alice’s coming-of-age story is entertaining and thoughtful because it shows that friendship, romance without sex, and personal passions are filled with just as much love as anything sexual. It forces the reader to consider what makes love special to them and why certain types of love are given a higher value than others. Let’s Talk About Love both entertains and starts a conversation; more people should be reading and talking about this book.
From the moment I started reading young adult literature, I enjoyed many things about the genre.
I liked how there were subgenres like fantasy, contemporary, and verse novels (i.e., books written in poems that tell a story). I liked reading about teenagers who save the world. I liked seeing teenagers experiencing real-life issues that no one wants to talk about, like mental illness and feeling out of place. Yet I eventually noticed that some of the stories involving black characters only revolved around personal and socioeconomic issues.
As I mentioned in my discussion of Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything, it was rare for me to find stories of black teenagers in romantic bliss. Although I felt somewhat validated reading young adult books as a teen, they also gave me the impression I had nothing happy to look forward to. I felt like my entire teenage experience would be defined by suffering because I never read about a black teen who was in a happy relationship or confident in themselves. I wanted black characters who were actual characters that felt a wide range of emotions and lived different experiences. Most importantly, I wanted black girl nerds.
When you think of nerdy girls in young adult literature, there is a certain type of girl that comes to mind. They are usually white and gorgeous or white and awkward. Not to mention, they might be so troubled that they need a guy to save them by instantly falling in love with them. After reading so many young adult books with nerdy white female protagonists, I was starting to think that there would never be one with a black female lead. Then I read The Unforgettables by G. L. Thomas and felt validated in more ways than one.
The major reason The Unforgettables appealed to me so much was because of Felicia Abelard, one of the main characters of the book. She is a Haitian American teenager who lives in a culturally rich home and loves comics, Japanese anime, and cosplaying. She is confident in herself to the point where she wears her kinky hair big despite her mother’s wanting her to straighten it. Yet she is also afraid to stand out too much due to strict parents and being bullied. Felicia Abelard is one of the most complex black female characters I’ve ever read in a young adult book, and also the most relatable.
Not only was Felicia Abelard’s nerdiness appealing, but it also broke the mold for what a nerdy female character was supposed to be. In many young adult books and coming-of-age films, the nerdy girl is relegated to what is known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. According to the website TV Tropes, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a quirky, childlike girl whose purpose is to give a male lead character a better outlook on life. In young adult literature, characters who fit this trope include Sam from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dulcie from Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, and Alaska in John Green’s Looking for Alaska. Although some books deconstruct the trope, its pervasiveness in young adult literature and film suggest an unhealthy appeal.
In The Unforgettables, the other main character is Paul Hiroshima, a biracial Japanese teenage boy. Prior to reading the book, I was concerned that Felicia Abelard would become Paul’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl. However, the moment I read their very first encounter, I knew I wouldn’t have anything to worry about. When the two first meet, a yard sale is going on at one of their neighbors’ houses. When the two spy a collection of rare comics called Hit Boy and Slash Girl, they quiz each other on the comics to see who will get to have them. Felicia’s passion for the comics makes Paul realize that she would enjoy the comics more than him, so he lets her take the comics home.
In this first meeting, the stage is set for a friendship as well as romantic attraction between the characters. Yet Felicia Abelard never becomes a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because her life doesn’t revolve around Paul and vice versa. Instead, Felicia Abelard is just a girl who learns not to be afraid of living her best life while being friends with a guy she has feelings for. Although Felicia considers Paul an awesome guy, she also wants to play forward on her soccer team, survive her junior year of high school, and get a little more freedom from her parents. Meanwhile, Paul wants to adjust to moving to a new town and school, apply to art school, and survive his senior year. Although their feelings for each other start to change their friendship, Felicia and Paul still manage to be there for each other while living their own lives.
Through her grounded life, her unabashed love of nerdy things, and her complicated friendship with Paul, Felicia Abelard’s character arc becomes a poignant story to watch unfold. Felicia calls herself “Sidekick Supreme” to Paul’s “The 8th Wonder,” and together they call themselves “The Unforgettables.” Despite her heroic moniker, she is not a sidekick in Paul’s life, but she is one in her own life due to her fears. Initially, her fear of being bullied by her peers keeps her from playing forward on the soccer team. Furthermore, her fear of her parents’ disapproval keeps her from admitting her feelings for Paul. Finally, her fear of losing Paul as a friend keeps her from sustaining their friendship when things get muddled.
Meanwhile, Paul is afraid of not being able to adjust to his new home and not being able to go to art school. Although he and Felicia have different fears, they hide from them behind masks both metaphorical and literal. For Felicia’s sixteen birthday, Paul makes her a superhero mask to go with her identity as “Sidekick Supreme” as well as one for his identity as “The 8th Wonder.” Since superhero masks are usually used by superheroes to hide their civilian identity from others, it makes sense that Felicia and Paul’s masks symbolize their need to hide from themselves and others.
Eventually, Felicia ends up shedding her mask to express her feelings for Paul. In turn, this inspires Paul to come clean to his parents about applying to art school. Although the two aren’t able to become a couple, Felicia and Paul rekindle their friendship and move on with their lives. After being asked out by a senior classmate, Felicia goes to the senior prom. Meanwhile, Paul goes to the prom with a friend and ends up attending a summer session at an art school.
By shedding their masks, Felicia and Paul allow themselves to get more out of life and appreciate each other more. This makes Felicia her own hero as well as hero to Paul. In fact, Paul comes to appreciate Felicia so much that he gives her a painting of herself as well as a hand-made comic book that features them as The Unforgettables. The comic book contains a bonus comic that has The 8th Wonder becoming a solo hero called Felicia Fantastic. At the end of the comic, there is a note from Paul says, “You were never my sidekick. You were always my hero.”
Although she fights personal fears instead of bad guys, Felicia Abelard is still a hero in her own right. She is a hero for Paul and herself by learning to face her fears. Most of all, she is a hero to me for being her nerdy, beautiful brown self. In a sea of suffering black protagonists and white Manic Pixie Dream Girls, she is Felicia Fantastic, and she is unforgettable.
As a teen, I had a soft spot for contemporary YA romance. I especially enjoyed the romance in The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares. I liked these books because the female characters showed me that even if you had personal issues, you could still find love. However, at some point, I found myself asking, “Why can’t black girls have a YA romance?”
Carmen Lowell, a half Puerto Rican character from the Traveling Pants series, was one of the few women of color I read in YA romance. I enjoyed reading about her because she was caring toward her family and friends and pursued a romantic relationship despite her confidence issues. However, by the end of the final book, Sisterhood Everlasting, she is the only one not in a relationship. Although she is very satisfied with her life, it bothered me that she couldn’t be married or dating someone when she is the only lead of color.
In addition to being one of the few women of color in YA romance, Carmen Lowell was the only female character of color I read who had happy romances. Other books like Sharon M. Draper’s Romiette and Julio and Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly had black female romantic leads, but their relationships also involved social issues. Both Romiette and Julio and If You Come Softly dealt with the racism that came with being in interracial relationships. While I was impressed by both authors’ takes on this important issue, part of me also wanted a book with a romance free of social tension.
Last year, I discovered Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything when it became a New York Times bestseller. After doing some research, I discovered that this book not only had black female lead but was also written by a black author. After waiting several months, I borrowed a copy from my local library to read and was totally enamored by the book. If this book were food, it would be cotton candy, filled with fluffy, sugary sweet moments that melted on my heart.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the main character, Madeline Whittler. Even though she is isolated from the world, she isn’t portrayed in a negative light. Instead, she is a quirky young girl who loves books and board games and yearns to experience life more fully. She spoke to my teen self, the me that had a hard time fitting in. In addition, Maddie being African American and Japanese gave me the long awaited representation I wanted as a black and Vietnamese person. As someone who rarely saw biracial characters who were black and Asian, this was very validating.
In addition to enjoying Maddie’s character, I liked that her romance happened gradually. Maddie Whittler can’t touch anyone or go outside the house because she has a rare disease that makes her allergic to everything. As a result, she has to communicate with Olly online and through each other’s windows. (They use mirror writing.) For a time, she is also allowed to have quarantined visits from him as long as they don’t touch each other. This makes the moments when they can interact in person all the more precious.
Out of all my favorite moments between Maddie and Ollie, my favorite is when they kiss for the very first time. At this point, they’ve only touched once before without anyone knowing. Maddie and Ollie’s feelings for each other have grown to the point where they can’t keep it to themselves anymore. They need to touch each other and express their feelings to validate them. The kiss is so beautiful and special, and Maddy savors it.
By the time I had finished the book, I had been thoroughly entertained and even taught a few lessons. The most important lesson is summed up in the quote, “Love is worth everything, everything.” This book shows that whether it is romantic love or familial love, it is worth experiencing and fighting for. It is a simple yet relatable message that makes the book memorable.
In addition to being ecstatic about the book itself, I am also excited for the movie adaptation, which will star Amandla Sternberg and Nick Robinson. When I heard this news, I was so thankful. Black YA leads in films are just as rare as black YA romance leads, and people have been craving this. Last year, Twitter user Mariah started the hashtag #WOCforAlaskaYoung in response to the casting call for the YA film Looking for Alaska. She and many others tweeted that they wanted Alaska to be played by a woman of color. Even John Green, the author of the book being adapted, stated that he supported the campaign.
Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything shows that black girls can have a happy young adult romance. It provides some much-needed representation on the page and tells a beautiful story of love. If the movie is as successful as the book, then hopefully we can get more books and movies with black female leads. Right now, Everything, Everything is everything I always wanted in a YA romance, and that is amazing.