Transcript from an interview with Kekla Magoon

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Kekla Magoon. Watch the video interview with Kekla Magoon ›

My reading life as a child

I loved reading as a kid. My mom used to take us to the library and, you know, every single week we would go and I would check out as many books as I could. I remember stacking them in my hands all the way up to my chin and you know that was as many books as I could carry and bringing them home. And I really love that experience of diving into a narrative, diving into a different world, you know, escaping into a story.

And I think that it’s definitely my love of reading that helps drive my interest in writing. It’s a delight to be able to create that type of experience, that immersion, that escape, that joy that I experience as a reader. To be someone who creates that as a writer is really, really powerful. 

As a kid I would say I mostly read realistic fiction, I loved historical fiction. I probably read a little bit of fantasy. But for the most part what I was interested in was how do you make friends? How do you fit in? And so, I read a lot of books that were based in school and community and, you know, a lot of historical fiction as well, because I was interested in the big questions of, you know, how do I be someone who makes a difference in the world? What would it have been like to live in those intense historical moments, like the Civil Rights Movement? And that was something that I enjoyed imagining and fantasizing about.

Seeing yourself in books

We talk a lot now as authors about the experience of not seeing ourselves in books when we were young. And I don't know if it’s anything that I was aware of or really thought about as a child. I mean, I found plenty of things to read, plenty of things to be excited about. But I do remember the first time I encountered Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, and you know just turning that rickety paperback rack around in my seventh grade classroom and seeing that book cover and grabbing it and taking it home and reading it and so I definitely have that really powerful memory of a specific image of a young Black girl on the cover of a book.

And, you know, I still think about that reading experience today.

Books are about empathy

Books are entirely about empathy. They are a way of diving into someone else’s mind and heart, whether it’s the mind and heart of the author or the mind and heart of the characters or both. And I think that the more you experience the world through someone else’s perspective, the more you see that there are, you know, these beautiful diverse perspectives in our world and that they inform us and they enlighten and us and they educate us. 

And I think that the more we read and the more widely we read, the more diverse authors we read, the more we understand the world. And to me that’s a really powerful aspect of literature that it can create empathy in us in a way that’s really safe where we’re not always able to go out in the world and meet people who are having wildly different experiences than we are, especially if those experiences have to do with racism or sexism or homophobia or transphobia or ableism. Right?

Like we don’t necessarily want to experience those things in real life or want our children to experience those things in real life. But they’re so much a part of our world and so much the underpinning of so many structures in our society that reading about them and understanding them and seeing them on page is a safe way to experience some of the scary and dangerous and difficult things about the world around us.

I'm often speaking in schools that are in wealthy communities that can afford to bring authors, so there’s a limitation to the audience that I'm able to present to regularly. I don’t get to present to, you know, schools in low-income communities as often as I would like to or schools in Black communities as often as I would like to.

So I'm often speaking to an audience that is very different from the characters in my books. And so, you know, they often are experiencing the things that I write about, like contemporary struggles around civil rights, contemporary struggles around police brutality and social justice and equality and things like that feel like something they study in history class in relation to the Civil Rights movement not something that’s part of their world right now.

And so I find that young people respond in a lot of different ways to the work. They are excited about the story. I often am hearing questions about my characters much more often than I'm hearing questions about how we change the world at large. Right? The power of fiction is that you’re drawn into who these people are, you’re drawn into their experience. You’re drawn into the world that they operate in.

So in something like How it Went Down where there’s all these different perspectives, you know, it’s a way of seeing the world through all of these different eyes. And there are a lot of readers who find that really exciting. But, you know, for me as the author it’s just as exciting to hear them rush up and say, well, what happens to so and so after the book is over, you know, that they care about the characters and they’re excited about the story.

Building the diverse bookshelf

I don't think any of our bookshelves are complete yet. I think that we’re in a moment where we are inviting a lot of voices to publishing, that were not invited before, that were specifically excluded before. And so one of the delights is to see historical fiction opening up, to see Native fiction and Latinx fiction and Black American history reflected in our books in more expansive, deeper ways then we’ve seen in the past.

Our historical cannon has tended to be a little bit about the Revolutionary War, a little bit about the Civil War, maybe a little bit about World War Two and then some Civil Rights thrown in without a lot of exploration of sort of the individual lives and experiences of people who were not white, who were not heroic in the grand way we think of heroes, right? People who changed the world and might have a biography written about them.

It’s just as powerful to read about a young person who stood up for what they believed in in a really difficult time. And so I think we’re seeing a lot more of those kinds of narratives. We’re seeing a lot more narratives that celebrate regular people who stood up for something important. And often those people were non-white, often those people, you know, were marginalized in one way or another.

And so we’re seeing more stories about marginalized people; people who are part of historically marginalized communities being able to tell their story. And for me that just expands our bookshelves enormously.

How I write

I'm a very haphazard writer. In our writing circles we talk about people who plot their work really carefully in advance, and then people who fly by the seat of their pants and create in chaos. And I'm definitely more of a chaos type of writer. So, you know, I often write scenes out of order, I write whatever comes to mind. I just start putting things on the page that I know are part of a particular story and I just keep adding and adding and adding, up until the point when I don't know what to add anymore, I feel like I have some material, I get confused and stuck, and then I print it all out and try to put it all together where it ends up being sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. 

I have all this material, I know it’s part of this story, but I have to find the order that it goes in. I have to find a way to make it make sense to someone else. It always makes sense in my mind. But I need it to make sense to someone else. And so a lot of the work that I put into revision is around plotting and structure and the flow of the piece. And I spend a lot less time early in the book worrying about the line edit aspect of things and how things are line by line on the page.

I think that my line-by-line writing is actually fairly organically smooth, which I'm fortunate to be in that position. And so a lot of what I am working on, a lot of what I struggle with is the bigger picture things and knitting all of the pieces together. That’s actually why I write in vignettes often, because it’s how the work comes to me in these chunks and then I enjoy weaving some of those gaps for the reader to fill in and jumping from what’s important to what else is important as opposed to deliberately looking to fill in every single hole.

Learning to write

I teach at Vermont College of Fine Arts and that’s actually also where I got my Master’s degree and so I really rely on that community for support, for intellectual engagement, for craft, you know, learning and growth. And it’s a really important part of my writing life to have people not just from VCFA but from across the children’s literature community as my friends.

When I meet with young writers I often am more focused on what they’re doing on the page, I talk to them about the importance of sticking with your writing, the importance of continuing and definitely the importance of believing in your own voice regardless of what other people might have to say about your work and that, you know, to try to recognize the difference between somebody who just wants to cut you down or wants to change what you’re trying to say versus somebody who is being critical of your work to try to help you improve, to try to help you grow, to try to help those very valuable things that you have that you want to express to the world to help you find ways to make that clearer to a reader.

Community and activism

I don't know that I spend a lot of time talking with young readers about a writing community specifically, but I do talk to them about community overall. Community is a vital part of not just being a writer, but of being an activist, of being someone who uses your voice in the world in whatever way. When we look at the historical Civil Rights Movement or the contemporary Civil Rights Movement it’s never just one person.

Even if we celebrate the heroes in our historical narrative and we hold up people like the Reverend Dr. King or Rosa Parks and say these are the heroes, these are the people that changed the world, that’s only part of the story. The reality is that there were hundreds and thousands of often very young people, teenagers, college students, even middle school students and younger, elementary kids, who marched and protested and the only way that that made a difference is because they did it together as a community.

They rose up as one voice and every person who showed up to a protest, every person who was willing to get arrested, every person who put their life and freedom on the line for what they believed in was part of something much bigger. And so whether it’s about writing, whether it’s about activism, we often feel so small, we feel like we’re just one little person in this huge landscape of so much that’s challenging and so much that needs to change.

But the way that we get through it is by working together, by doing our little part, writing our little words, going to our little protests. Whatever it is that we can do that we’re a part of something much bigger. And community is the foundation for all of that. 

The Season of Styx Malone : Being Black in a small town

In The Season of Styx Malone I really wanted to set it in a small town in Indiana because you don’t see a lot of stories set in small towns in Indiana that star Black boys. And to me that was an important narrative to offer. It was going to be a fun story. A summer adventure between these boys. But I think part of it, at least part of it is that I wanted to upend the expectation that a narrative about young Black boys has to take place in a city. 

The idea that young Black boys would only feel safe in a city. Part of the construct of The Season of Styx Malone is that their father, a Black man, feels safest in this small town with his Black family where people know them and people recognize them and there is, in his mind, less of a chance that they’re going to encounter someone who is scared of them based on the color of their skin, because everybody knows who they are personally.

And that’s something that I definitely experienced a lot as a young person, the idea that you can be in a community — I grew up in Indiana myself — you can be in a community where a lot of people have really strong biases against Black people, really strong biases against people who look different than themselves, who come from a different place or have different experiences and yet those people will find you individually and befriend you and sort of lift you out of that group. Right?

I may feel xenophobia towards Black people, but you, you are my friend and so therefore I sort of don’t see you as Black. And I find that phenomenon really, really interesting in general, but I also find that an interesting sort of thing that one could use as a form of comfort, as a shield to say, okay, these are people who know me, I know that they have some racism in them, but they’re not using that against me and so that makes me safe.

And so that’s something that’s not explicitly on the page for most of the novel, but it’s something that underpins the setting, and it underpins the family and it is something that I think adult readers definitely pick up on and a lot of young readers are picking up on as well, that sense that Caleb and Bobby Jean’s father has a particular idea about where they should be and why.

Being extraordinary

Part of the impetus for the novel is that Caleb is someone who wants to be special. He knows that he doesn’t want to be ordinary, and his dad is very proud of being ordinary, his dad loves ordinary this, ‘Well, ordinary people just want, you know, this, ordinary people just want that,’ when he was talking to the TV. Right? Like talking back to the news like you do. And Caleb in his mind says, I don’t want to be ordinary, and Caleb’s dad says you’re not ordinary, you’re ‘extra-ordinary.’ 

And he knows that his father’s paying him a compliment, but because he knows how much his father loves being ordinary, he thinks that Caleb thinks that his father is telling him you are the most ordinary, the most boring, the most uninteresting and unspecial person in the whole universe and that’s great. Like that’s what he thinks his father’s saying. So that lights a fire in him where he says I'm going to be different, I'm going to be special, and that sort of sets off the whole adventure, because he starts trying to find ways to make himself stand out.

But that misunderstanding, that idea of being told you’re special, and, of course, his father, we know the actual meaning of extraordinary is special, different. Right? You are extraordinary! But I am finding that when I visit classrooms and I ask, well, what does it mean, that at least 50 percent of the time the kid that raises their hand and I call on first thinks that it actually means the most ordinary, like extra-ordinary.

Like this is not an uncommon misconception. You know, my editor and I have gone back and forth on well, is it believable, you know, that a kid his age wouldn’t know that word, especially one who uses vocabulary the way that he uses vocabulary through my voice in the book, and I said, I think it’s really important, you know, there’s often just words we don’t understand. There’s often these gaps that happen for us where, you know, you’ve lived your whole life and then suddenly you’re 25 and you realize you’ve been mispronouncing a word for all this time. 

You know, all of that feels very real to me when you’re young, especially when you’re very young. And so, I kind of loved, I found it charming that misunderstanding, you know, that he could imagine extraordinary means ‘extra ordinary.’ And to me that just fueled the whole novel and was a really fun place to start and end.

Social justice at the heart of Shadows of Sherwood

I started writing my Robin Hood retelling, which is Shadows of Sherwood, because I had been really steeped in a study of the Civil Rights Movement and social justice for a long time. I had published a number of novels about those topics, and I really wanted a break from that. I wanted to think about something fun and lighthearted and fantasy based. And I thought, well, what do I love? I love the Robin Hood legend. Wouldn’t it be kind of fun and interesting if Robin Hood was a bi-racial teenage girl living in a city, right? Let’s just put a little spin on that legend.

And so I was diving into that writing process and really enjoying it and having a lot of fun and I got, I don't know half or two-thirds of the way through the first book and then it just dawned on me that actually I'm doing the same thing I always do, writing about social justice, but through the lens of fantasy, because Robin Hood is a social justice story. 

Robin Hood robs from the rich to give to the poor, because the powers that be are taking advantage of the people who don’t have power in the society and his work in the actual legend is entirely about rectifying a power imbalance and making sure that people in a community are actually being cared for and have the resources that they need and not only the king. Right?

And so it was striking to me to realize that even when I'm writing fantasy, something that seems so different from what I've been doing all of this time, it’s actually the same thing and that I am always talking about the issues that I care about no matter what lens I'm writing through.

The characters in Shadows of Sherwood are this kind of motley crew of young misfits who find each other and start working together to make change. And again, this is a character who starts as a loner and starts building this crew. Right? Robin Hood has his merry men, and my Robyn also has her little band.

And it’s very much a part of what I always write about. It is about people doing their little part, using their little skills to be part of something bigger, to be part of a social justice movement, to be activists, to be making change, to be using their voices to make a difference.

And young people taking the lead in a social justice movement is also incredibly powerful, an incredibly realistic historical truth. And yet all of that can be reflected in fantasy in this way and feel completely different. And I enjoy that a lot.

Creating a picture book biography of Thurgood Marshall

The Highest Tribute is my first picture book. And it’s a biography of Thurgood Marshall who was the first Black Supreme Court Justice and also a landmark Civil Rights attorney in many major cases leading up to that, including Brown versus Board of Education, which overturned school segregation and paved the way for a lot of other laws that would help promote integration and equality.

And the title, The Highest Tribute, is drawn from a Thurgood Marshall quote that says, ‘in recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.’ And so the arc of the book is about Thurgood persisting through challenges and, you know, being committed from the time he was very young to this idea of civil rights. You know, it starts out by saying that when Thurgood Marshall was in second grade he decided that if there was something he didn’t like about the world, he would change it.

And he started with his own name. His birth name as Thoroughgood, but he shortened it when he was very young. And that’s just one example of many times when he said, hey, I don’t like this I'm going to change it. And, of course, the biggest example of that was segregation. He said I don’t like this, I'm going to change it. And it took decades, but he succeeded. 

And so that’s the arc of the story, but, you know, I think through his work he clearly was paying the highest tribute to humanity. Right? He was saying I will use my life, I will use my resources, I will use my talents to create equality in this world for everyone. And so I end the book by saying something like, you know, by doing this work he has paid himself the highest tribute. And so that’s where the title comes from.

Part of what surprised me about researching him was how little his story was reflected in children’s literature. And I was delighted to learn that he was quite a gregarious fellow who enjoyed, you know, telling stories and connecting with people and it sounds like he was a really enjoyable person to work with and really, really positive.

And he definitely always worked as part of a team. He was never alone in his work. He had, you know, many, many colleagues who argued cases with him, who worked over briefs with him, who supported his work. And, you know, so he, in my mind, is a really good example of how it does take a community to make change. We hold up these heroes as individuals, but there’s always this group, this community around them that is really supporting and enforcing and making possible the work that they do. 

And so it was delightful to learn about his mentors and the people he mentored and his family and to see that he was more than the little snapshot that we reduce him to of, you know, lawyer, a Supreme Court Justice, right? To see him as a whole person was pretty compelling.

She Persisted: Ruby Bridges

She Persisted: Ruby Bridges is part of a chapter book series that is authored by Chelsea Clinton with a series of children’s authors. And it’s based on the She Persisted picture book that Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger published several years ago. The Ruby Bridges’ book in particular is about a young girl, Ruby Bridges, who was six years old in 1960 and she was the first Black student to integrate her elementary school in New Orleans. And so, she faced down a jeering crowd of people who did not want to see integration happen.

She was escorted into her school building every day by U.S. marshals who protected her from the crowd who was literally threatening to attack her or hurt her or her family. And she went every day to school through that crowd, sat alone in her classroom, because all the white parents pulled their kids out of the school and she was one of the trail blazers for civil rights, because that image of this little girl with the bows in her hair walking through this jeering crowd protected by these big U.S. marshals was an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement.

And a very, very powerful statement about integration and the need and importance of integration that we would put a six-year-old girl on the front line of something like that was a really, really powerful message. And, you know, I think it’s particularly powerful because Ruby was just so young. She was six years old. She’s the same age as the readers of that chapter book series and I think that seeing Ruby be so brave and do such a big thing, but also not such a big thing. She went to school every day.

A lot of six-year-olds can understand that, because that’s what most of them do every day, they go to school. But in that place and time that really, really ordinary thing of going to school became this extraordinary act of protest. And so I think it shows us that no matter how young you are, by doing ordinary things that are important to you, by standing up for what you believe in, you can be part of making change.

I really loved being part of the series. It is of course a huge honor to be chosen by Chelsea Clinton to work on the series, and to be part of what we call the ‘persisterhood’ of authors who support each other and who continue to lift up these narratives about women, because historically women have been excluded from the narrative more often than they’ve been included ‘ despite the fact that women have been at the forefront of every major moment in history throughout history ‘ those stories aren’t often told. 

And so it is a delight to be part of a series that’s bringing those women’s stories to the forefront for readers of all genders.

The Blue Star graphic novel series

The Blue Star series is a graphic novel series that I'm co-writing with Cynthia Leitich Smith, a good friend and colleague of mine. We came to this project because I was visiting her, we were having fun, we were writing our own projects and we kept kind of imagining what if we had known each other when we were kids, what if we had been friends when we were in middle school? You know, would we have been friends? Would we have found each other? Right? 

Would we have connected at that age the way we connect now? And so, we started talking about well, what were you like as a middle schooler? What was I like as a middle schooler? And we ended up, you know, one thing leads to another and suddenly we have these two characters, Maya and Riley, one of whom is based on me, a bi-racial girl and one of them is based on Cyn, a Native girl. 

And we made them cousins, so they’re part of this big Black and Native family and they are going to meet and, I mean, they know each other because they’re cousins, but they’re going to meet and live together for the first time when they’re starting sixth grade in a new city with their grandma. And they realize very quickly in their new school that there are some grownups who are up to no good and it’s going to be up to them to save the day. 

And so Maya and Riley become superheroes in their community, starting with their own school. And they are very, very grounded in sense of community and family and sisterhood. They’re cousins, but the larger concept of sisterhood. And they are ready to save the day. 


"Writing is thinking on paper. " — William Zinsser