Monthly Archives: June 2015

SHADOWSHAPER and the Power of Art

By Daniel José Older

digest-older-shadowshaperHere’s a phrase you’ll hear often in conversations about gentrification: “First, the artists moved in.” It’s a tiny, complicated sentence amidst a gigantic, complicated topic (which I wrote more about here). But embedded in it, you’ll find one of the central acts of erasure at the heart of gentrification itself. When people say this, they really mean the white artists came first, but the white goes unmentioned because, like whiteness itself, it’s presumed, normalized: the fallback category. (See also: writers only pointing out a character’s race when they’re not white.) The problem with saying  “First, the artists moved in,” is that it’s not true. There have always been artists in the America’s low-income neighborhoods, and hopefully there always will be. But they haven’t always been white and their art hasn’t always been the kind that galleries and art critics deem worthy of a pedestal.

The pages of Shadowshaper, my first YA novel, are filled with musicians and rappers, poets, painters, storytellers, journalists — all folks who get erased when we talk about a glorified first wave of white artists entering the hood like they’re some kind of daring explorers in the wilderness.

Sierra Santiago is just trying to pain a mural on the wall of one of those brand new, wildly out of place looking buildings on a block otherwise full of brownstones. A tear drips down the face of a fading mural adjacent to the one she’s painting, a memorial to a friend of her family’s. Then chaos erupts when a guy that was supposed to be dead shows up at the first party of the summer while Sierra’s trying to recruit her friend Robbie to help her unravel the mystery of the crying painting and her grandfather’s connection to a mysterious group called the shadowshapers.

Shadowshaper is about artists and the power of art. Amidst rapidly changing neighborhoods, police violence, and literary erasure, the painting a face on a wall, the act of remembrance, is truly a form of resistance. In the struggle to reclaim her own heritage, Sierra must find her voice. This is the first great adventure of every artist, but it’s an adventure that society glorifies or demonizes differently along coded race and gender lines. We find our voices as individuals and collectively, and once we find them, we must learn how to lift them — over the din and tangle of oppression and the industry and the market and bad advice about what will sell and what won’t sell — and say something difficult and true. In writing Sierra’s journey to finding her voice, I ended up finding my own.

Photo credit: Kevin Kane

Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series from Penguin’s Roc Books and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper (Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015). His first collection of short stories, Salsa Nocturna and the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, which he co-edited, are available from Crossed Genres Publications. You can find Daniel’s thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at and @djolder on twitter and youtube.

Shadowshaper is available for purchase here

Moving Beyond “Pretty”

By Jaclyn Dolamore

dolamore-glitteringshadowsIn 2009, by some odd coincidence, I ended up reading four books almost in a row with a character who was missing a hand. Each of these characters was in some way cool or charismatic…and they were all male. I found myself trying to recall if I had ever seen a fictional female with a missing hand, and at that time, I couldn’t think of a single one. I chalked this up to my general theory that fictional women just don’t get to be interesting in as many different ways as fictional men do, and thought, “Maybe someday I’ll write a cool one-handed girl,” in the vague way writers file away a lot of random ideas.

Fast forward several years, and the plot to my work-in-progress, Glittering Shadows, had taken various twists and turns and one of my female characters, um, kinda needed to lose a hand. While this might have been a decision purely based on plot, I nevertheless wanted to take it very seriously and write it as accurately as possible, so one of the things I did was to research prosthetics.

All the male characters I read about in 2009 had a hook, and it was usually described as being sharp and weapon-like, such as you see on fiction’s most famous one-handed character, Captain Hook. My series is set in a world based firmly on Europe between World Wars, so the technology needed to match the era. My research showed that the standard prosthetic for a missing hand—both at that time, and often still today—is indeed a hook, but not a sharp pirate hook. It is, in fact, a split hook that can open and close to grasp things, and is operated by a motion of the opposite shoulder through the use of bands.

I have to confess, when I first read about this, I felt a protective pang for my character. This didn’t sound…pretty, like a delicate Victorian prosthetic hand someone would post on Pinterest. This had all the romance of a medical supply store, with a dash of action movie bad guy. I didn’t want to do this to her! It makes me squirm to admit this was my vision. And yet, I had no idea this thought was lurking in the depths of my mind until I started thinking in the context of one of my own characters. This is actually one of the things I most LOVE about writing diverse fiction—it brings buried biases and stereotypes to the surface like bubbles—and often, they’re just as easy to pop with some real information.

My second thought, of course, went straight back to the same thought I had in 2009: the very fact that my gut reaction was “that isn’t pretty” is why I needed to write it. Because girls so often have to stay pretty, while at the same time, entertainment often reinforces that disabilities aren’t pretty. Why shouldn’t girls get to be both disabled and glam? Why should female characters be protected? And how do real girls with only one hand feel when their portrayals in fiction are largely male pirates and villains?

When I started watching YouTube videos demonstrating prosthetic hooks, I realized they didn’t really look like I expected either. They were more graceful, more capable of precision than I had imagined. I stopped cringing on my character’s behalf and started drawing sketches of her dressed to the nines. As, in the book, she grows to like her own reflection again, so did I shed some of my own conceptions of disability and beauty, and in a larger sense, of what women are allowed to be.

Jaclyn Dolamore spent her childhood reading as many books as she could lug home from the library and playing elaborate pretend games. She has a passion for history, thrift stores, vintage dresses, and local food. She lives with her partner Dade and three weird cats in a Victorian house in western Maryland. Visit her online at

Glittering Shadows is available for purchase.

5 Things I Learned While Writing INK AND ASHES

By Valynne E. Maetani

maetani-inkandashes-ag15When my sister turned eighteen, I decided to write Ink and Ashes for her. Because I never got to see myself in books other than those with settings involving war, an internment camp, or high fantasy, I wanted her to have a contemporary title with a Japanese American protagonist. I was tired of reading about people like me who were hated just because of the way they look and thought the greatest gift I could give her was a book I never got to read.

Following red herrings and guessing how a story might end has always been a thrill, so I knew this was the type of book I wanted to write. I also wanted a Japanese element which added mystery, and that naturally led me to the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

The only problem was that I had never written a book before. Fortunately, writing a book was really fun and easy.

Until it wasn’t.

So here are some of the most important things I learned:

1. Writing is hard. In order to grow, I had to leave my ego at the door. I had to be willing to let my manuscript be ripped to shreds. I had to hear why parts of my story didn’t work. I had to learn where my weaknesses were, so I could discover my strengths.

2. Writing is hard. There were times I hated my book. I hated my characters. I wanted them all to die. But I also loved my book. I loved it enough that I couldn’t give up writing. I was passionate about my story even when I thought my manuscript would never be published. In fact, I was pretty certain my story would never see the light of day. No one had written a book like mine, and so I believed there wasn’t a market for my story. But having an underlying passion for what I was writing carried me through the times that were difficult.

3. Writing is hard. I think some of the hardest scenes to write for Ink and Ashes were the ones where I left a part of myself on the page. Allowing myself to be vulnerable was difficult, but it also meant I was writing a story no one else could write.

4. Writing is hard. But having friends who are writers has made the journey easier. Only writers truly understand why we do what we do—why we torture ourselves and yet love the craft. Writers understand exactly what it means to get an agent, to sell a book, to be on deadline, to write another book. They have been a support system that I couldn’t have done without.

5. Writing is hard. But it is also fun. It is worth the blood, the sweat, and the tears. It has brought joys and opportunities I could have never imagined; introduced me to people I wouldn’t have met otherwise; and filled voids that I wasn’t even aware of.

Writing is hard. But it wouldn’t be meaningful otherwise, and I can’t imagine life without it.

valynnemaetaniValynne E. Maetani grew up in Utah and obtained a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. In a former life, she was a project manager and developed educational software for children with learning disabilities. Currently, she is a part-time stage mom, part-time soccer mom, and full-time writer. Her debut novel, Ink and Ashes, is the winner of the New Visions Award 2013 and a spring 2015 Junior Library Guild selection. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT.

Ink and Ashes is now available.

Small Countries

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann

millerlachmannn-survivingI write novels that take place in small countries. In a publishing industry that encourages writers to appeal to the widest possible audience, setting a novel in Chile, a long, narrow country in South America with scarcely more than ten million people and only a few thousand immigrants in the United States, seems like a spectacularly bad career decision. Writing a novel about a small country earns me the same reaction that authors of diverse books often hear about their protagonists of color, protagonists with disabilities, or LGBTQIA protagonists: “Your books have limited audience, and we can’t publish/acquire/stock them, because they won’t sell.”

These kinds of comments ignore the fact that teens read plenty of books set in distant places with distinct cultures. Science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian novels dominate the list of best sellers. These genres are popular because they present complex and interesting worlds that transport readers away from their everyday lives. Characters grapple with life-and-death conflicts that, hopefully, most of us will not have to experience in our own lives.

The history of many places throughout the world is, sadly, full of the same life-and-death conflicts. Throughout history, most people have lived under oppressive regimes. Many writers of dystopian fiction have based their works on real places throughout history, from ancient Rome to Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

Like its predecessor, Gringolandia, Surviving Santiago is set in a real-life dystopia of the past — Chile under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Until he and his allies shot and bombed his way to power in a military coup on September 11, 1973, Chile had enjoyed many decades of democracy and peace. Afterward, the name Pinochet became identified with political prisons and torture. The small faraway country of Chile became a cautionary tale of how quickly freedom can be lost, and, once lost, how hard it is to get back.

In the days after the 1973 coup, hundreds of thousands of people like Marcelo Aguilar, the father of my protagonist of Surviving Santiago, suddenly became enemies of the state. Many of those who survived the early wave of violence chose to leave the country, and some ended up in the United States. Others, including Marcelo, stayed to fight the dictator.

Sixteen-year-old Tina hasn’t seen her father in many years. After his arrest, she fled to the United States with her mother and brother while he remained in prison, tortured so badly that he suffers permanent physical and emotional damage. Ever since his release, he has neglected his family to work underground against the dictatorship. But he still wants to see Tina, and she maintains a grain of hope that he’ll be the old father she remembers from before his arrest and imprisonment.

Tina arrives in Santiago just before the dictatorship’s end, when many of its supporters didn’t want to let go. They feared the exposure of their misdeeds, or they saw these final months as an opportunity to punish the people who defeated them. It was a time of secrets, betrayal, and life-or-death situations, particularly for returnees like Tina who were basically strangers in their own land.

When Tina’s father ignores her, she finds companionship with a mysterious local boy, Frankie. They seem to have a lot in common: a love of Metallica, motorcycles, and action movies — and fathers who are alcoholics. She denies signs that Frankie may not be telling the truth.

Small country, but big conflicts with equally big stakes.

These are also universal conflicts that prompt further thought and discussion. When faced with a huge injustice, do you walk away or fight? What comes first — being there for your family or making the world a better place? How do you know when someone is really a friend? If a friend wants you to do something that you think is wrong, would you do it anyway to keep the friendship? And how would you help a friend who has made a bad decision and is now in danger because of it?

These questions arise in contemporary realistic novels, science fiction, fantasy, dystopian fiction — and historical fiction set in countries throughout the world. They are questions young people face whatever their background. Teen readers already know that a great story is a great story, whatever the setting. So why not publish more diverse books, books that highlight characters who may not be in the “majority” (whatever that is in our increasingly diverse society), and characters who live in, or travel to, small countries? Why assume that these books “have limited audience” and treat them differently from books set in the foreign worlds of science fiction, fantasy, and dystopia?

lynmillerlachmannLyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of Gringolndia (a 2010 ALA Best Book for Young Adults) and Rogue. She has an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Wisconsin. She is the former editor of MultiCultural Review, and has taught English, social studies, and Jewish studies. She is the assistant host of Vientos del Pueblo, a bilingual radio show featuring Latin American and Spanish music, poetry, and history. She grew up in Houston and currently lives in Albany, NY, with her family.

Surviving Santiago is now available.