Vt. Writer Kekla Magoon Wins Nationwide Award For Younger Grownup Novels On Civil Rights Historical past, Racism

The Margaret A. Edwards Award was established in 1988 to honor the work of an author who has made a meaningful and enduring contribution to the literature of young adults. This year’s winner is Montpelier writer Kekla Magoon, who is honored for four books dealing with the history of civil rights and exploring topics related to combating racism, white supremacy and injustice.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke to writer Kekla Magoon about her work and what it means to win the American Library Association’s Edwards Award. Your conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Four of Magoon’s works that have won the ALA Edwards Award 2021 are:

  • X: A novel: The book was written with Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of the murdered civil rights icon Malcolm X, and is a fictional representation of the formative years of Malcom Little and how he came to accept his past and change the course of his life.
  • How it went down, the story of a black teenager, 16-year-old Tariq Johnson, who was shot and killed by a white gunman, Jack Franklin, and the differences between what witnesses say, see, and know.
  • The rock in the river and Fire in the streets, Accompanying novels that follow two black teenagers, Sam and Maxie, who choose between peaceful protest and civil disobedience or more aggressive action in Chicago in 1968.

Mitch Wertlieb: Let’s talk about this award and how it does not distinguish a book, but a work or books. Why was the award created to do all of an author’s work?

Kekla Magoon: It is a truly incredible honor to elevate the books as a group in this way. You know, especially for work like mine, in which I have a topic, a point of view, the award is supposed to honor this entirety, as you said, the feeling that these books build on one another, they have a conversation with someone else. The idea that a book does not stand on its own is a reader’s own experience. But then when you add a companion novel, when you add another book that resonates with it in a different way, it just builds and builds.

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I am so curious about this book that you wrote with Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz. It’s called X: A novel. It must have been amazing to work with her. How did the whole project come about?

It was wonderful. I was so pleased to be selected. Ilyasah had been working on a picture book about her father. She was interested in writing other stories about him. And she had the idea of ​​writing a novel for young adults about Malcolm X as a teenager. I think she received several books from (probably) mostly black authors writing for teenagers. And she selected some of my books, The Rock in the River and Fire in the Streets, which are about young people in Chicago in 1968 grappling with the decision to be a civil rights activist in the traditional sense or the Black Panther Party to join.

And she felt like I had recorded something about the Black Panther Party and that movement, which was largely misrepresented, just as Malcolm X’s story was largely misrepresented. And I think she felt like I could capture what she wanted to capture about his young life that was more like what he was as a young man than the way people traditionally talked about him in pop culture had.

I’d like to take up this thread a bit because when I tell this story about Malcolm X I wonder how you might react to a parent who might say the subject is somehow “too disturbing” or “too political”. for younger readers. What would you say about this criticism?

It is very limiting to say that young readers believe and absorb and be influenced by any information that is passed on in front of them. This is the fear people have when they claim that a particular book is unsuitable for a young reader. Because they think, “Oh, what if that information somehow leads this kid to make bad decisions in their own life?” It’s just a fear that adults carry.

“I think young people are really much better at dealing with complexity than adults. Their whole world is about discovering and understanding new things.” – Kekla Magoon, author

I think young people are really much better at dealing with complexity than adults. Their whole world is about discovering and understanding new things.

If you think the Malcolm X story is inappropriate for a young reader, it is likely because you don’t really understand the Malcolm X story. His parents are civil rights activists in the 1920s and 1930s, his father was killed by, essentially the Ku Klux Klan in Michigan, when he was around five years old. His mother raised all the children on her own and continued her activism. They were severely discriminated against. They faced a lot of arguments.

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You know, Malcolm wanted to be a lawyer when he was young and was told he couldn’t because he was black. And he really carried that discouragement with him. He could have been an amazing lawyer, but that belief has been taken from him because of his upbringing. When he was 14, he ran to Boston trying to put all that pain behind him. He tried to get away from it. And he didn’t think he could mind anything.

To tell this story, but knowing that Malcolm has moved from that place of pain and suffering to a place of appreciation and triumph and is someone who is so powerful and can make that sort of thing, I think this is one really inspiring story is someone of any age. So the value of reading a book like this is: It can help you overcome the jerky reaction, “No, that’s bad. It’s scary. This is wrong “when you actually do not have all the information.

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I know you already believe in what you do, and I know that you have written so many books on these subjects, civil rights and fighting for what is right. But what does this award mean for you to drive these efforts forward?

I feel powerful in a meaningful way. You know writing is such a lonely act. I spend most of my time at home, especially now in this pandemic landscape. I am at home with my laptop and I have the feeling that I am just writing in a void, that I am only telling these stories and not knowing how important they will be. A bit like malcom [asking]“Does anything I do actually make a difference? I dont know!”

But I keep doing the work because it’s something I’m passionate about. And to sit alone in my house in the middle of a pandemic and get a call from this committee saying that not only are people out there reading your work, we think this is making a difference in the landscape of children as well Adolescents do adult literature and that classrooms, families and communities have these conversations about race, about social justice, about bias, about identity … is incredibly powerful.

It’s stimulating. It’s inspiring. It makes me sit at the computer every day and tell these stories because they go somewhere. And that’s my way of making a difference in the world.

Do you have any questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning edition Host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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