Welcome back to Vocabulary.com's summer reading series. In this installment, we spotlight award-winning author Kekla Magoon.
Her middle grade novels include Camo Girl and the Robyn Hoodlum series, a re-imagining of the Robin Hood legend. Magoon's young adult novels include The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets, two books about teens trying to find their places in the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago in the late 1960s; X: A Novel, a fictionalized account of Malcolm X's early years; and How It Went Down, which explores a community's attempt to grapple with the death of a 16-year-old boy.
If you want to make sure your students understand every word of these compelling stories, check out our curated vocabulary lists for The Rock and the River, X: A Novel, and Magoon's most recent middle grade novel, The Season of Styx Malone. In this hilarious and touching book, 10-year-old Caleb longs to explore the world outside his small town and prove that he's extraordinary. When he and his brother meet smooth-talking Styx Malone, the trio hatches a bold plan to acquire a moped — and breaks more than a few rules. The Season of Styx Malone is the perfect book to help you celebrate long summer days full of possibility and adventure.
Vocabulary.com's Director of Curriculum Development, Amanda M. Leff, spoke with Kekla Magoon about The Season of Styx Malone and how ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things. Magoon also discussed the themes that connect her many novels and found herself in a quandary when trying to name some of her favorite words.
Amanda M. Leff: You grew up in Indiana and The Season of Styx Malone is set in a rural Indiana town. When you created the fictional town of Sutton and thought about the ways Caleb and Bobby Gene would spend their summer, did you draw on any of your personal childhood experiences?
Kekla Magoon: I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is a pretty big town by the landscape of Indiana, but I did spend time in a couple of smaller towns. And now I live in a very small town in Vermont, so I was able to use all of those different experiences to bring the setting to life. We played outside a lot as kids. We didn't have woods, but we had a lot of trees and we had that sense of, "We're going out in the backyard, it's our own space, it's separate from our parents." There were rules about how far we could go away from home, and there was a big road that we couldn't cross. There were boundaries. We just played within the zone we were allowed, but that sense of freedom within certain confines — and the desire to go beyond them — was there.
AML: There are a handful of contemporary references in the novel, but when I was reading it, it struck me as a kind of timeless story. In many ways, it felt like it could be taking place 10, 20, or even 40 years ago. Was that intentional?
KM: Yes and no. I like the idea of the book being timeless, theoretically. For me, that question becomes a little more complicated when I think about the fact that these are black boys living in a small town in Indiana. I had played with the idea of making it a historical novel because some of the aspects of the story that I wanted to tell are timeless: they're about childhood, they're about siblinghood, they're about adventure and about figuring out who you are and what's important about you. All of those things are universal. All of those things could have taken place in the 50s, right? That was one of the time periods I had considered setting the novel. But if it was going to be historical, I don't think it could have been quite the story that it is with black characters. If the story happened 50 years ago, I think elements of racism and segregation would have colored their lives in a different way. I think who their father was, and what he would have thought protected them in that time, would have been quite different.
AML: You've written a number of coming-of-age novels, but The Season of Styx Malone seems tonally different from some of your earlier work, like The Rock and the River or Camo Girl. It certainly touches on serious issues, but it's also just an incredibly fun and funny read. I was curious how you approached weaving the more difficult or serious material into a more comic novel, finding that balance between light-heartedness and emotional depth.
KM: I'm glad that I did find that balance. I wanted to. I've obviously written about really serious topics before. It hasn't always felt fun, the type of work that feels important to me and the kind of writing that comes naturally to me and the issues that I want to talk about in the world. Those topics are really serious and heavy, and that becomes hard to sustain creatively after a while. I've tried a couple of different times and a couple of different ways to do something different, to say, "Okay, I'm going to write something fun and lighthearted" — like the Robyn Hoodlum series, which is a Robin Hood retelling in which Robin Hood is a biracial teenage girl in a city. So that was me trying to do something fun, but it ends up being a social justice story. Robin Hooding is about political and economic equality, right?
With The Season of Styx Malone, there's this madcap adventure quality to the boys trading their baby sister for a bag of fireworks and a sort of absurdity in the escalator trade. To me, it was fun and lighthearted, but when the main characters are black boys in a small town in rural Indiana, I can't help but think about what the implications of that are for their identity in the world. So that does end up playing a role for me. In this case, I think [their identity] is a very important part of the story, but it's not what a child reader would necessarily leap toward right away; it's more of an underpinning to the story. It's just, you know, we're living our lives as black Americans and this is one of the things that we worry about. This is one of the things that affects our experience.
AML: When looking at your bibliography, the thing that struck me most was your range as an author. You've tackled so many different genres, and you write for different audiences. Do you see a throughline that connects everything you write? Is it that concern with social justice?
KM: I do think that there's a social justice element in everything. In terms of The Season of Styx Malone, I talk about it in terms of what it's like to be an ordinary person and what it means to be ordinary versus extraordinary. I think a lot of times we see ourselves as ordinary — too ordinary: I'm too small, I can't make a difference, there's nothing I could do to be special. That's what Caleb is struggling with in the beginning. He wants to be special. He wants to be different. He wants to stand out in some way, but he doesn't really have a handle on what that is or what it means. I think that's something that's very common, and so I find in my work that I like to tell stories about ordinary people or the ordinary aspect of someone who's extraordinary. For example, X: A Novel is about Malcolm X, who was this great speaker and leader and humanitarian, who is still remembered and revered, and his words are relevant 50 years after his death. He's this important figure, but there was a time when he was just a 14-year-old kid who was confused and lost and scared, trying to figure out how he fit into the world. That's a really relatable feeling. In The Rock and the River, I'm writing not about civil rights leaders and heroes, but about kids who were trying to decide how they fit into this movement and what their contribution could be. I think that the theme of social justice plays into everything I do, but also the idea that everybody can be a part of making change. However ordinary or small we feel, there is something in us that can be part of a bigger kind of change or can be part of making a difference in the world.
AML: So what's up next for you? Are there projects that you're working on now that readers should be on the lookout for?
KM: I'm working on another middle grade novel. It'll be hopefully fun and lighthearted in the same way that The Season of Styx Malone is. In the fall, I have a companion to How It Went Down that's coming out. It's called Light It Up.
AML: What are some of your favorite or recommended summer reads?
KM: I've recently read William Alexander's latest book, A Properly Unhaunted Place, and its companion, A Festival of Ghosts. I really like Will's books. And I recommend The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Also Laurie Calkhoven's Michael at the Invasion of France, 1943. It's a World War II story. I like historical fiction. I'm looking around at all of my books thinking, "Which is my favorite to talk about?" Linda Urban's Weekends with Max and His Dad. And I also have Jewell Parker Rhodes's Ghost Boys here. It's great.
AML: Do you have some favorite words — words that are meaningful to you in some way or words that you just love?
KM: I just love words, words of all kinds! I like learning new words. I like strange words. Because of The Season of Styx Malone, I'm very fond of this word extraordinary, especially because when you look at it on paper, it is "extra-ordinary." To me, that's fascinating, that the word for the opposite of ordinary is "extra-ordinary." It goes with the theme that it's in us, all of us ordinary people, to do something extraordinary. We just don't know what that moment is going to be. With teachers and librarians and authors, you've just got to keep showing up and handing books to people, to kids, every day. When you just keep doing that, it gets very ordinary after a while to hand a kid a book, but you don't know which one of those books is going to be the book that sparks somebody becoming an author, or that sparks somebody finding the passion for what they're going to do for the rest of their life, or that just makes someone get excited about reading for the first time. The idea is that there is something extraordinary in what is ordinary and that what is ordinary can become extraordinary.
My actual favorite word is my name, Kekla, which means "dawn or sunrise" in a language called Bassa, which is spoken in Cameroon, a country in western Africa.
It's such an interesting question. What is it about a specific word that you like? What it means? How it sounds? What it makes you feel? It's a quandary. There's a word I like! Quandary. Such a good word.
AML: Thank you so much for speaking with me about The Season of Styx Malone!
Looking for more summer fun? Stay tuned for the next and last installment in our summer reading series, in which I discuss The Last Last-Day-of-Summer with author and co-founder of We Need Diverse Books, Lamar Giles.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You can read more about Kekla Magoon and her work at KeklaMagoon.com.
Amanda M. Leff is the Director of Curriculum Development at Vocabulary.com and has been working in educational technology since 2013. She previously taught at Wellesley College and New York University. She has a PhD in medieval English literature and would be delighted to recite Chaucer from memory at your next dinner party. In her spare time, she reads books, reads about books, and devises increasingly Byzantine ways to organize her Goodreads shelves.Click here to read other articles by Amanda M. Leff
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