Author of more than a dozen books for middle grade and young adult readers, Kekla Magoon made her children’s book debut with 2009’s The Rock and the River, a novel about a teen in 1968 Chicago who is caught between the ideologies of his civil rights-activist father and his brother, a Black Panther member. The novel won Magoon a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, and Magoon has subsequently received additional awards, including a NAACP Image Award and two Coretta Scott King Honors, for How It Went Down and X: A Novel (cowritten by Ilyasah Shabazz). This month, Magoon adds to her varied oeuvre—which spans historical fiction, contemporary realistic novels, and fantasy—with The Season of Styx Malone, a novel about Bobby Gene and Caleb, two sheltered African-American brothers in rural Indiana whose lives take an unexpected turn when they meet Styx, a charismatic older boy who convinces them that “you just gotta learn how to make people give you things.” PW spoke with Magoon, now a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts, about how she discovered these characters and their stories.
You open your new novel with quite a bang. Even before the brothers meet wheeler-and-dealer Styx, they make a deal on their own, and trade their baby sister for a sack of fireworks! What was the inspiration for that attention-grabbing scenario?
A lot of different pieces come together to make any book, and that is what happened here. That piece of the novel was loosely based on an incident in my life. Once, when I was visiting a friend in North Carolina, we stopped for ice cream. We were the only people in the place, and the clerk was very chatty in a rather odd way. After we sat down with our ice cream, he came over to our booth and told us some bizarre stories, including one about how his father and uncles once traded their baby sister for something—I think maybe a bag of peanuts. My friend turned to me and said, “That has to go into a book.”
I agreed with her, but I forgot about it for years, and then one day it suddenly came back. I began thinking about how it might happen that siblings who really care for their little sister agree to trade her for something cool. I felt that would get Bobby Gene and Caleb into trouble—and spark a good story.
Where did you find your inspiration for these brothers—who are only a year apart in age, yet have such different personalities?
I think all of my characters in some ways are inspired by people I know, and by parts of myself and my family and friends, but I didn’t have any specific models for the boys. Caleb is determined not to be “ordinary,” and is the one pushing the boundaries. Bobby Gene is more cautious, like their father. I wanted to create this dynamic of one boy pushing and the other one pulling. I have one brother, and we weren’t as close in age as these characters, but I did experience a similar sibling bond in the sense that you’re in this together—and always will be. You can challenge and annoy each other in different ways, but there is a sense of solidarity, and when push comes to shove, you have each other’s back. I wanted that, too, to be part of these brothers’ dynamic.
Speaking of dynamics, the arrival of Styx Malone puts a new, spiraling twist on the brothers’ lives and perspective on friendship and freedom. What was the genesis of this magnetic, and enigmatic, character?
Styx came to me as a scrawny but magical boy with so much energy—he is a force of his own. Caleb is determined not to be ordinary, but he doesn’t know what the opposite of ordinary is—until he runs into Styx. Styx looks like him—in their town the brothers don’t get to interact with blacks very much—and the boys see him as cool and charming and older, and they are ready to go on adventures with him.
And what wild adventures they find—based on Styx’s mantra about the rewards of getting something for nothing. Beginning with making a trade for the ill-begotten fireworks, the brothers, under Styx’s direction, become involved in a creative “escalator” trade-up scheme to acquire (if briefly) the vehicle of their dreams. What was the genesis of that plotting?
Some time ago, I was introduced to an urban legend about a guy who turned a paperclip into a mansion by trading things of increasing value, until he was eventually swapping a car for a boat and that boat for a fancier boat until he ends up with a million-dollar palace! There’s a certain logic to that—he hasn’t cheated or hurt anyone, yet he manages to get something for virtually nothing.
It’s a game Styx plays strategically, though he does cross the line at one point (and persuades the brothers to), when their trading-up scheme involves a theft.
Styx pushes the envelope on morality a bit, but he is not malicious, and I don’t see him as a villain. He wants to have fun, has good intentions, and doesn’t want to hurt anyone. But on some level, he wants to get caught, by pushing boundaries in the way teenagers do. And he is also vulnerable, which is something Bobby Gene and Caleb don’t see at first. Styx has needs of his own and finds a sense of belonging with these boys. He’s had a variety of experiences in foster care and is a product of a problematic subsystem that is not necessarily on the side of black teenage boys, but he is not succumbing to it. I want readers to appreciate the depth in Styx and to see him as a nuanced person.
You have set much of your earlier fiction in urban or suburban environments—why did you choose a rural setting for this novel?
I grew up in Fort Wayne but spent a lot of time in rural parts of the state, and I wanted to tell a story about growing up as a black child in small-town Indiana. Bobby Gene and Caleb’s father is protective of his sons and doesn’t want them to wander far from home. You hear again and again in the news about black kids being shot and killed, and I know it must be scary to be a parent, worrying about what might happen—even when your children go outside to play.
The boys’ father believes that if they stay in their town, where everyone knows who they are, they won’t be mistaken for random black children. That is how he can protect his family in a culture that is not just racist but xenophobic. Unlike many of my books, this novel is not specifically about race. I’m not sure that every reader will pick up on that subtext, but some will—it is another one of the layers of the story.
And in what ways does The Season of Styx Malone echo rather than strike different notes than your earlier fiction?
I see this novel as part of the cohesive narrative of my work, in that all my books reflect the experience of being an ordinary kid who can make a difference. If you recognize the power of your own voice and your good qualities, you will be able to discover and stand up for what you believe in. On the surface, my novels may appear different, but I hope that readers take away from them the same message: you have value, your voice matters, and you can make a difference.
The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon. Random/Lamb, $16.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-5247-1595-3