An Interview with Margaret A. Edwards Award Recipient Kekla Magoon

The Margaret A. Edwards Award, established in 1988, honors an author, as well as a specific body of his or her work, for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature. The annual award is administered by YALSA and sponsored by School Library Journal magazine. It recognizes an author’s work in helping adolescents become aware of themselves and addressing questions about their role and importance in relationships, society, and in the world.

The 2021 recipient is Kekla Magoon for X: A Novel co-written by Ilyasah Shabazz and published by Candlewick Press; How it Went Down published by Henry Holt and Co. Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group; The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets both published by Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. Kekla Magoon will be honored at YALSA’s 2021 YA Services Symposium, which is to take place November 3-5, 2021 in Reno, NV, where she will be presented with a citation and cash prize of $2,000.

Kekla Magoon

THE HUB: The Edwards award is unique in that it highlights not just the author (YOU!) but also a specific body of work from that author. What do you think made these titles stand out to the selection committee?

MAGOON: The connection, in my mind, is that all these titles focus on civil rights and social justice, either in a historical or contemporary context. These books were also often the first of their kind, or the first to tackle a particular narrative or topic, such as featuring Black Panther Party history in The Rock and the River, or addressing the frequent, tragic, often-controversial shootings of Black people in How it Went Down. Though there have since been other books on these topics, the committee seemed to recognize that these books arrived early in the conversation and continue to inspire discussion and dialogue among readers.

THE HUB: If an author’s books are like beloved children, which of your “shy” children do you wish would get more attention?

MAGOON: Of the four Edwards titles, Fire in the Streets gets the least attention. Perhaps mainly because it is a companion book, and people want to read The Rock and the River first, but perhaps also because sexism remains insidious in our culture, and it is the book in the group that is most clearly about a young Black girl. In my body of work as a whole, the book I always hoped would find a larger audience was 37 Things I Love. Fans of that book who’ve discovered it really love it, but at the time I was known for writing about the civil rights era and it was my first foray into contemporary YA, so I think it got overlooked because readers expected something specific from me. It has taken quite a while to establish myself as a writer who does a
variety of things. My books that deal directly with racism, civil rights and those sorts of Black experiences consistently receive more attention.

THE HUB: In The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets, you take readers inside the Civil Rights era and the work of the Black Panther Party at that time. Your forthcoming nonfiction book is also about the Black Panthers and attempts to tell a more complete version of this often overlooked or misunderstood part of history. What is it about the Black Panther Party that keeps you coming back? What can today’s readers learn from yesterday’s revolutionaries?

MAGOON: The Panthers have been fascinating to me for over a decade, ever since I learned how poorly they had been represented to me as a young student. I never learned anything about them in school, and still somehow I came away with the impression that they were so bad and so scary that we shouldn’t even talk about them. Yes, they made some controversial choices, like advocating self-defense against police brutality instead of “passive resistance,” but self-defense for the Panthers did not equate with violence—it meant self-sufficiency, community organizing, and education. They ran free breakfast programs for school children nationwide, founded schools and free health clinics, ran candidates for office, and organized for workers’ and tenants’ rights.

They sought to harness the collective power of Black people to ensure survival, access, and prosperity for all. We can learn a lot from the Panthers’ story, including how to persevere through challenges, as well as gaining a clearer sense of the legacy and impact of the oppression that Black people have experienced for centuries, and how it manifests in each new generation.

THE HUB: The idea of “reframing history” is a hot topic in politics and education these days, especially with the ongoing hubbub around the 1619 project and a more general “concern” that recentering the historical narrative might cause young people to “hate” their country. Those of us who grew up being taught (wrongly) that the Black Panthers and Malcolm X were nothing but angry, violent vigilantes may not have questioned our love of country, but we also were not taught the truth, and worse, we were taught that these leaders were not to be admired but feared. Your books insist otherwise, recentering the narrative on the Black experience in all its beautiful and complex humanity. Why is this humanizing of history so important for today’s youth?

MAGOON: The demand for patriotism (love of country) is often brought out as a reason to suppress a movement for social justice. This has been the case for decades. Think Vietnam, the civil rights era, the cold war, the war on terror: all of these moments have led to conflict over the question of how human beings are treated by the state, and whether it is appropriate to criticize our country in service of making it better, stronger, more resilient, and/or more diverse. In the face of such conflict, many people fly the flag and proclaim a love for country. They ask: “How can anyone
be unhappy in America when it is the land of the free?” Thus, the powers that be seek to hide behind an implied infallibility that is not grounded in reality. They draw lines between what is American and what is un-American, and they paint the latter as threatening. It is ultimately about power and control.

The challenge of history is that the records we study have typically been written by the people in power, typically white men. So, when Black people claim the right to share our perspective on history, it is a way of asserting power, and the white establishment always looks for ways to hold Black people down before they get a taste of power. The behavior itself is emblematic of the core issue, and so the conversation will remain circular and unproductive until the point when the people in power become willing to engage in self-examination and/or share the spotlight, which they have historically resisted in the extreme.

A power structure that refuses to allow itself to be challenged, questioned, or debated is ultimately weak, and protects itself by deflecting dissension. We are stronger when we engage with truth, complexity, and multiple perspectives. If our beliefs are strong, they emerge from such engagement even stronger. It is when they are weak (or wrong) that they cannot survive examination or pressure. The whitewashed, happy, noble, patriotic version of American history is incredibly easy to shatter, because it is a fragile veneer concealing centuries of violence and oppression. Shattering the veneer does not inherently lead to “hate” of country, though. It can lead to deeper understanding and the kind of love that can withstand whatever conflict is thrown at it. If we don’t think our children are capable of that depth or that love, we underestimate them.

Some people believe that protest is unpatriotic, while others believe protest is patriotism. The right to demand better from our government is our birthright, and those who say it isn’t are generally sitting in a place where they can already freely enjoy all the things that we are asking for. Ultimately it is a matter of perspective. To speak about the Black American experience does not diminish history, it enhances it.

THE HUB: How it Went Down was published in 2014, which feels like three lifetimes ago, but it is – tragically – still so relevant. Though Tariq didn’t die at the hands of a police officer, the reality of a young Black man dying at the hands of a white man who is not brought to justice is all-too-familiar. Despite that truth, I can imagine a future where your book is read by young readers who will find such tragic injustice hard to believe. I have to hope for that or I will despair. Are you able to evade despair?

MAGOON: How It Went Down came out in 2014, but I started writing it in 2012, after Trayvon Martin’s tragic shooting death by a neighborhood watch member, George Zimmerman, who was not a police officer. Around the time the book came out, though, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and numerous others had been killed by police officers. While police killing Black people was not a new phenomenon, these murders got more media attention because they happened post-Trayvon, because the controversy over George Zimmerman’s actions and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement changed the landscape of the conversation. As the news has evolved in the years since, many readers now assume that my character Tariq was shot by a police officer, which I find quite interesting.

I do have hope that such tragic occurrences will become fewer and farther between, but I also expect it will be a long time before the book ceases to be relevant. The history of violence against Black people is long and deep, and we are only just beginning the work of overturning the biases that lead to such tragedies. We operate in a landscape where huge swaths of people are unwilling to assert the simple phrase “Black Lives Matter” because they are too focused on their own interests to make space for Black life. They are unable to see that giving value to Black life does not diminish their own value, and the fact that they even fear that it does speaks volumes.

We have so much work to do. For Black people, hope is not contingent on being able to see the end of despair—through the middle passage, through enslavement, through segregation and lynchings, through the ongoing fight for equality and justice—we keep hope alive simply because we refuse to let despair win.

THE HUB: The multiple perspectives in How it Went Down is a pitch-perfect way to reflect that fragmented but always connected reality of community. How did that idea and those voices come to you? Did it happen all at once or evolve over time?

MAGOON: The idea for the book as a whole came from my then-editor at Henry Holt/Macmillan, Noa Wheeler. We had worked together on 37 Things I Love, which was finished and about to come out in a few months, and I had been pitching additional YA novel projects to her for a while, none of which felt quite right to her, but we wanted to work together again. We both watched the coverage of Trayvon Martin’s tragic shooting death with interest and with a lot of feelings, and Noa called me one day and asked if I had interest in doing a book related to the tragedy, to help
reach teens and deepen the conversation about what had occurred. I said yes, but that was it. That was the prompt: Something related to Trayvon Martin. I didn’t know immediately what the book would become, but as I started thinking about it, the first thing that came to mind was the cacophony of voices clamoring for attention on the issue in the media. So many soundbites, tweets, parroted catchphrases, oversimplified statements, and contradictory viewpoints. I thought it would be interesting to tease out some of those boiled-down soundbites, to build or to imagine
the character behind those words, and what had happened in their life to lead them to that mindset. I thought about the fact that none of us would ever know the entirety of what truly happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, yet so many people proclaimed their version of the truth as if it was absolute. And I thought about all the people who were part of the fabric of Trayvon’s life—his friends, family, classmates, teachers, neighbors, people he passed on the street who liked his smile and would now be missing him in a hundred unique ways, depending on the nature of their relationship. It felt powerful and interesting and different
to explore such a tragedy from a closer angle, to look for the humanity beneath the pulled-back, intellectualized media fray.

THE HUB: How did the collaboration between you and Ilyasah Shabazz (on X: A Novel) come to be?

MAGOON: My agent called me one afternoon, saying Ilyasah’s agent had reached out about possible collaboration, and I nearly fainted from excitement and nervousness. Prior to that moment, it’s my understanding that Ilyasah read books by several Black YA authors and became fond of The Rock and the River, specifically the way I was writing with nuance about the Black Panther Party. Her father, Malcolm X, has often been misunderstood and misrepresented, much like the Panthers, and she felt that I would be the right person to bring Malcolm’s story to life. The goal was to provide a different view of who Malcolm was before he became a world-renowned speaker, leader, and humanitarian, and to highlight the less-acknowledged aspects of his young life, like the closeness of his family and the activism of his parents. When Ilyasah and I met for the first time, I was still auditioning for the gig, but we spoke at length and I felt that I understood her vision and could deliver on her expectations, and she apparently felt the same, because she chose me to move forward with the project!

THE HUB: Though you have been rightly celebrated for your fiction and nonfiction, you approach language as a poet. I’m thinking of moments like this from the opening moments of How it Went Down:

My brain coiled around the knowledge: The boy in the hoodie has been shot. The loud sound echoed in my ears, as did his final whimper. The soft clatter-crash of his fall. The sound — yes, the sound — of the look the shooter gave me. It had a voice, that look. Sharp and clear like a bell.

What does sound mean to you as a writer? How do you play with sound and shape while still attending to plot and dialogue?

MAGOON: I loved playing with sound and shape in How it Went Down in particular. The vignette style allowed me to be more poetic and the multiple viewpoints necessitated thinking about how different voices would sound, in terms of overall rhythm and word choice as well as their story and content. The rhythm and flow of language is interesting to me, and often I end up with interesting word choices or phrasing simply because I’m trying to satisfy a particular rhythm in my head. Some authors read all of their work out loud in order to experience how it sounds, and
while I don’t make a point of doing that all the time, I definitely hear the lines in my head as I’m writing, and as I read over passages to revise them.

THE HUB: In all four of your Edwards-honored books, there are moments where young people grapple with the desire to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. It is such a critical truth, such a universal human experience. Is community and belonging at the heart of it all, then?

MAGOON: Yes, I think so. Community, belonging, and the desire to do something important in the world, to be a person who matters. It looks different ways in different people (or different characters), but I believe we all have something to contribute, an expression of who we are that has the power to help people, or spark change, or create something of meaning. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out who we are and how we fit best in the world, especially when there are obstacles in the way, or when there appear to be limitations to what we can achieve. My characters test their own boundaries because my readers and I will have to do that in our lives in various ways, and perhaps feeling less alone in that effort can give us all courage to go for the things we really want, and to believe that our voice, our impact, ultimately does affect a larger community, and maybe even the whole country, or the whole world.

THE HUB: We are so grateful to Kekla for her time in answering these questions and for her wisdom and caring — evident here and in every one of her books. If you haven’t yet read her work, you are in for such a treat!