Kekla Magoon knows her readers. As a prolific and highly respected writer of young adult books and an outspoken advocate for social justice, Magoon respects his readers and thinks highly of what they can do and handle.
“Kids get very curious and have a lot of questions that we don’t always have the answers to,” Magoon said in a recent interview at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she teaches. “We have to face their questions, and we can’t hide the hard things in the world from them forever.”
“We can’t say, ‘I don’t want you to think about race, because I don’t want you to feel bad about having the privilege of being white. That’s not where kids go first. Children go to empathy. Children think, ‘Wait, are you telling me that people who don’t look like me could be mistreated?’ They don’t immediately feel bad about their own situation. They feel bad about the other person, [and ask] ‘How can I help?'”
Children are ready to be part of the solution and help make the world a better place, she said. Too often adults, with their own biases, guilt and feelings, get in the way, Magoon added. Children, she pointed out, are more open-minded and better able to cope with difficult situations than adults think.
“It’s sad that racism is such a big issue in our history,” she suggested. “Let’s be part of the solution. What do you think we can do together as a family, as a community, as a class, to make the world a little better? »
“Little kids don’t care that their friend doesn’t look like them,” she said. “They might be excited about the differences.” She noted that children can talk about differences in skin, hair, freckles. “They do that stuff, but it’s not judgmental. It’s just, ‘Oh look, look how fun and pretty we all are.’
Seventeen pounds and more on the way
Magoon has published 17 middle school and young adult books. Nonetheless, his most recent book, “Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People” (Penguin Random House, 2021), is displayed in the adult and young adult sections of Bear Pond Books. Beginning with the publication of her first book, “The Rock and the River” (Simon and Schuster, 2009), Magoon has won a long string of awards, including an NAACP Image Award and, in 2021, the Margaret A. Edwards Award for his significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature. An internet search showed that she has actually won more awards than she has published books.
Social justice and human rights – passions she inherited from her parents and grandparents – have permeated her work from the start. Born in Michigan to a white American mother of Scottish and Dutch ancestry and a black father from Cameroon, West Africa, Magoon lived for a few years in Cameroon but grew up mostly in Indiana.
After graduating from Northwestern University, she worked for nonprofits and lived in New York for about 12 years. In 2002, she came to what was then the Vermont College of Union Institute and University (now the Vermont College of Fine Arts) for an exploratory weekend. Soon, she was enrolled in a low-residency MFA program focused on writing for children and young adults. She immediately felt connected to the college writing community and developed a love for Montpellier and Vermont.
In 2015, with several books and awards behind her, Magoon joined the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts and moved to Montpellier.
“It’s a really wonderful place to live,” she said, adding that she had to travel often for speaking engagements and it was easy to get to Boston, New York or beyond.
Although Magoon has a background in writing (she wrote her first novel in high school), she thrived in the MFA program. His master’s thesis became his first book, “The Rock and the River.” Published 13 years ago, it remains one of his most popular young adult novels. The story of a teenager torn between loyalty to the journey of his civil rights activist father and that of his older brother, who joined the Black Panthers, the book is the first of four in which the Black Panthers played a role. important.
Magoon’s interest in the Panthers grew out of his love of history and the civil rights movement and culminated in “Revolution in Our Time,” published in November.
“Even if you don’t agree with the choices the Panthers made,” she said, “I think it’s worth discussing and understanding why they made the choices they made. have done…I think when we are afraid to talk about certain things with our children, we just have to be very patient with ourselves and with them to try to deal with what is difficult in our history. We can’t avoid the complexities of our history, because if we don’t let children experience complexity when they’re young, how will they be prepared to deal with the complexities of being an adult?”
“I understand why parents want to protect their children, but I don’t understand why books scare people so much. Why ideas scare people so much,” Magoon said. “Yes, books and ideas can be transformative, but there is good in that. There is power in there. And you know, I think we want our kids to know as much about the world as possible. It is difficult for me to understand that your child knows as little as possible about the world. It doesn’t make sense in my mind. I don’t think it protects them.
Social justice and black and brown characters are central to all of Magoon’s books; however, not all of his books are as intense as “The Rock and the River” or “Revolution in Our Time.”
Neither frightening nor politically heavy, “Shadows of Sherwood” (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), the first of three books in the Robyn Hoodlum Adventure Series, offers exciting reading for the middle schoolers for whom the book is intended.
A modern take on the Robin Hood mythos starring a 12-year-old biracial heroine, the story includes social and economic disparities, but Magoon presents them in a slightly futuristic dystopian society.
More books in the works
The day I interviewed Magoon, she told me she had finished another novel over the weekend. She said she currently has 11 other books in various stages of development. They include a few picture books and a series of graphic novels about two mid-level superheroes that she co-wrote with native writer and fellow VCFA faculty member Cynthia Leitich Smith.
While the pandemic has limited Magoon to most Zoom events, in normal times she regularly speaks at conferences, attends bookstore events and makes school visits.
For Magoon, writing is central to her sense of identity and her desire to make a difference in the world.
“I’ve always wanted to feel like my voice matters in the world and my work matters in the world and I’m doing something to make it a better place,” she said.
“There are people marching, there are people demonstrating. There are people who have founded nonprofits and there are people who work for existing nonprofits,” she said. “There are people running for office. There are lots of different ways to be someone trying to make a difference in the world.
“None of these things quite match up, but I’m really good at storytelling. I’m really good at using language to make a point or an argument or express something,” she said. So, I’ve found ways to use that skill set to advance things I care about in the world, which have a lot to do with social justice and civil rights.”
For Magoon, everyone can find a way to make a meaningful contribution to a better world.
“As individuals, we underestimate our ability to do a lot of things because we think, ‘I can’t finish this’ or ‘I can’t finish this massive task,’” she said. “You do a little. You show up the next day. You do a little. … Everything is incremental. … It adds up, and for me it’s really important. …You just have to keep plugging in and not give up.