Author Daniel José Older just dropped a major surprise for fans of his young adult series. On Tuesday afternoon, Scholastic released The Ghost Girl In The Corner, a novella set in the Shadowshaper universe. The story centers on two of Sierra Santiago's friends, Tee and Izzy, as they work together to solve the mysterious disappearance of a neighborhood girl. Daniel José Older spoke to Bustle about the creation of Ghost Girl and the inspiration for the Shadowshaper series, which will continue in 2017 with the release of Shadowhouse Fall .
Ghost Girl begins when Tee spots a ghost girl in the corner of the basement where she's set up shop as the new editor of the Searchlight, a Brooklyn paper that covers the community stories that mainstream media ignores. Tee doesn't know the identity of the ghost girl, but that's not the only mystery she's trying to solve. Another girl — a living girl — has gone missing, and no one seems to care. Not the cops. Not the media. The only people searching for her are Tee, her girlfriend Izzy, and their neighborhood friends. Like Sierra, Tee and Izzy are shadowshapers, people who can channel the spirits of their ancestors in music and art. Unlike Sierra, they aren't very good at it yet. Plus, their relationship isn't exactly on steady ground at the moment. Can they mend the gaps in their relationship and channel their powers to find the missing girl before it's too late?
Daniel José Older's stories might be for young adults, but he's never pulled punches when it comes to the brutal realities faced by POC, especially POC children. Fiction mirrors reality, and this is especially true for Ghost Girl In The Corner, which was inspired by the story of Romona Moore, a Guyanese immigrant who was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in April 2003. When the 21-year-old Hunter College student went missing, the NYPD told her family she'd probably run away with her boyfriend. Two days after her disappearance was reported, they closed the case. It was later discovered that she had been tortured and raped for several days just blocks from her home in Brooklyn — and she had still been alive when police closed the case.
"A black girl ignored by the media, ignored by the NYPD, and left to die. It never really got any coverage except for the protests — it just disappeared," Daniel José Older tells Bustle. "It's like a double disappearance. I found that so heartbreaking."
A month before Moore's disappearance, another woman had gone missing: Svetlana Aronov, a 44-year-old white woman who lived on the affluent Upper East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. The day after her disappearance, police launched a major search. Moore's mother filed a lawsuit against the NYPD, alleging that officials with racial bias prevented her daughter from receiving the same treatment as Aronov. A federal judge dismissed the case in 2014.
"It was such a stark contrast and there was so much brutality and horror in both of those cases, and the way they were treated was so clearly different," Older says.
Unfortunately, this type of systemic discrimination has become all too common, and Daniel José Older recognizes that talking about this issue — especially in works for young adults — is vital. He does admit, however, that it took him many years to find the right words to tell this story. "It really haunted me for a long time," he says. "I wanted to write about it at the time, but this was during that period when I just didn't know what kind of output to do." He eventually did write about it in an essay for Salon, and later he found the voice he'd been searching for all along with Tee and Izzy.
"[Those were the] two characters that really wanted to be in the story and needed to tell this story. That was what surfaced right away. I was like, 'How can we think this through on a fictional plane?'" he says.
Writing Brooklyn the way it exists — gentrification, poverty, racism, and all — has always been a priority to Older. This means that when you open the pages of Shadowshaper or The Ghost Girl In The Corner, the borough is going to look plenty different than how it looks on Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls. The ugly stuff is there, but the good stuff is, too — the communities, the cultures, the languages, the food, the spirit, the music, the art. What results is a Brooklyn with a heart that pounds as mightily as the characters Older has created.
Older, originally from Boston, has been in New York for 13 years, and he navigates the city — on foot and on paper — like a native. He owes his expertise to the years he spent as a paramedic, a job that exposed him to every aspect of the city.
"You're in the absolute poverty and you're in the decadence. You're underground. You're on the top floor of these penthouse apartments. You're just everywhere, so you just learn it," he says. "You're also keyed in really deeply to the institutional level and the emotional response and just what's going on on that plane, too. So, you're all over the city and you have access to it in a way that a regular civilian doesn't."
That firsthand experience, combined with what Older calls "lived research," helped him craft a representation of the dynamic Brooklyn that exists in real life.... well, magic aside. That part of Shadowshaper he owes to Harry Potter, which he says inspired him to create a similar story for people of color.
"What would Harry Potter look like if it was not just for us, but by us? 'Us' being people of color," Older says. "What happens when it's not a white dude saving the world? But also... [what happens] when we take on the challenge of bringing our own narrative voice and rhythm to the page, instead of just trying to paint a brown face on a white story?"
"That was the starting question: what would happen if Harry Potter met The Wire?" he adds.
In Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older has created a mythology as fantastical as the world of Harry Potter. But he's also given many children and teenagers a world close enough to their own to feel real, to feel possible. A world where they can wield their magic and their power to make incredible things happen. A world where their culture and their communities and their language makes them even stronger. A world where they can be heroes.
The Ghost Girl In The Cornerby Daniel José Older, $.99 for Kindle, Amazon
Images: Courtesy of Scholastic