Growing up in a house full of books, Daniel José Older was destined to become a voracious reader. His sister, Malka Older, author of the Infomocracy series, and his parents were big readers. He grew up “liberally borrowing” Malka’s books, as well as diving into the tomes that filled his home.
The New York Times bestselling author – whose Shadowshaper novel constantly lands on lists of recommended YA books – is a supporter of the We Need Diverse Books movement, which calls for changes in the publishing industry so that all young people have books that reflect their realities. And though he acknowledges how far the industry has come, he knows it’s still a long journey until everyone can see themselves accurately represented in books. Given his dedication to writing about strong women of color – the protagonist of his Shadowshaper series is Afro-Boricua Sierra Santiago – we wanted to learn more about the books that have shaped the Star Wars author’s life.
A week after a whirlwind New York Comic Con, Older hopped on the phone to answer all our questions about his favorite books. Every once in a while, he’d look to his bookshelf for guidance. Not surprisingly, Older talked about a wide variety of books spanning multiple genres and shouted out various authors of color. Here’s what he had to say.
Shadowhouse Fall, the second book in the Shadowshaper trilogy, is now available at bookstores. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
On notable Star Wars books
I don’t know if I have a favorite, but I just read Phasma by Delilah Dawson, and it’s fantastic. I also really love one called Bloodline by Claudia Gray, which is about Princess Leia right before, a couple of years before, The Force Awakens happens. Right now, those are probably my top two.
I just think they do a really great job of on the one hand, just expanding the Star Wars world and kind of just more about these amazing characters, both really strong, incredible female characters in the Star Wars universe that we just, I for one and I think a lot of people, always want to know more about the characters that aren’t entirely front and center. I mean Leia’s definitely a major character, but she has so much to her that we don’t get access to, that we don’t get to see in the movies. So it’s really cool to see her in these kind of really key turning points in galactic history and in her own life, and making decisions and being a powerful politician and warrior. That’s amazing stuff.
And then with Phasma, I love the structure of it. It’s structured as a, kind of like a Scheherazade story, where one character is telling the story of another character, so there’s these two kind of dual narratives going on at the same time that’s just really excellently done.
On a book he'd recommend to young Latinxs
Zoraida Córdova’s Labyrinth Lost. It’s so great. It’s fantasy, and it’s reality, and it’s difficult truths, and it’s beautiful stories. There’s so much in there it’s just a wonderful book.
On one of his sci-fi novels
One of them is definitely Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson, which is, actually, I consider it a young adult book. It’s a phenomenal story about coming of age and being on a faraway planet and Caribbean culture and monsters and survival and healing. It’s just a beautiful story. It’s just so profound.
On a YA book he loves
I wanna shout out Jason Reynolds’ Miles Morales: Spider-Man book, cause it’s so great. It’s an Afro-Latino character and just the super re-write of the Spider-Man myth, which I’ll be honest, I was kind of tired of Spider-Man. I love the new movie, but I really love this book, cause Jason’s so good, and he grounded it in Brooklyn. And then, really just went running with the whole mythology of Spider-Man and told this incredible and beautiful story. It’s not my favorite of all time, because I don’t think I have a favorite, but it’s one that I highly recommend.
On books that made an impact in his life as a kid
I remember looking for a book to identify with. I don’t remember necessarily finding it. I think one of the first representations of myself that I recognized was like being me culturally was Maria, Sonia Manzano on Sesame Street. It wasn’t a book, but she was such a familiar, almost like my mom it was so cool to see that.
Some of my favorite books as a kid were, weirdly, the Iliad by Homer. I definitely didn’t see myself in it, but I loved that book so much, because I was a big Greek mythology nerd. I just loved Greek mythology.
I also really loved All the President’s Men, which is like the Watergate story, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. For some reason, I just really clicked with that story and it just really fascinated me so I would just read that book all the time.
Whenever I think about those two books as like my founding, origin story as a reader and a writer, it makes a lot of sense, because I write about magic and power and politics and the way the world is and the way it could be and all this divine intervention and war and all this sort of stuff. It’s all in the stuff I write now, which is really cool.
On a standout book from 2017
Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza. It’s an amazing adventure with really a lot of characters that also really deals with the political climate we’re living in without beating anybody over the head with it, but just you know, telling this great story and it’s great world building that’s just very exciting.
On books he re-reads
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. I think it’s the combination of mythology and storytelling and worldbuilding and technology. It’s got everything, and it’s amazing sci-fi. There’s just so many layers to the philosophy behind it that are really really smart and thoughtful, so I come back to it. Not a lot. I don’t re-read books a lot. By saying I come back to it a lot, I really mean five to 10 years. So that’s not a lot.
Another one I would say is Richard III, which is my favorite Shakespeare play. That’s one that I do return to every couple of years just. I’ve always loved it. It’s the first Shakespeare play I ever saw. It’s the whole complexity of all the political machinations and just defeat and betrayal and power plays and all that stuff, but it’s done so brilliantly and so thoughtfully. I can’t get enough of it.
On his favorite trilogy
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. That’s the one that’s really jumping to mind right now. I think every one of them is really strong and they build off each other beautifully, so it’s an escalating kind of series of disasters, but she really fulfills the promise at the end. At the beginning, it’s like such a frustrating world and there’s so much oppression and everything else and the only logical kind of place to go with that is all out war and revolution.
I think a lot of writers might’ve kind of flinched and not really gone there, but she ended up having this really thoughtful conversation about the complexity of revolution and what it all means and why, and there’s no easy answers in those books, but it still gives us a sense of hope, even though it’s a very difficult and traumatizing path.
On a character he identifies with
I really love Oscar Wao from The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. He’s just really complex and he’s really just a real human being on so many levels. For me, it was so powerful to see a Latino nerd on the page in a literary novel that’s also very sci-fi oriented. It felt like it was written for me.