This year marks 15 years in the publishing industry for author Kekla Magoon. And how is she celebrating? By adding four more books to her catalog, of course. In the coming months, readers can look forward to a graphic novel series opener, a middle grade fantasy epic, an intergenerational YA novel about young parenthood, and a chapter book highlighting an influential female sports figure. But if you’d told this to a younger Magoon, who wrote as a passion project, she might not have believed you.
“I kind of stumbled into writing sideways in my early 20s,” Magoon says. “Writing was always something I turned to in times of crisis, or transition—a way to process emotions. I wasn’t conscious of how important it was to me. I had different career goals and had never thought about the possibility of being a writer.”
On Sept. 9, 2001, bright-eyed Northwestern University graduate Magoon, armed with her history degree, made the big leap and moved to New York City. Just 48 hours later, her entire perspective changed on the heels of an American tragedy. In the months after, the city seemed to turn inward, as did Magoon, who says she spent most of her time in her apartment or at small cafés. That period was when writing got ahold of her. “I was trying to find my way in a very scary moment in the city,” Magoon recalls via Zoom from her home in Montpelier, Vt. “I found that I was just pouring out all of my angst and frustration and fear, and every emotion was stumbling out onto the page. And that ended up being something that I kept coming back to over the next couple of years.”
Writing was a comfort throughout her years working as a recruiter for the Girl Scout Council of Greater New York, and as the development director for a small nonprofit based in Harlem, before she considered a career as an author. The blustering winds of Vermont, where she now lives and teaches, were the grounds for what Magoon calls her “first connections to children’s literature.” The ease in which she fell into the children’s literature cocoon confirmed to her that she was on the right path. After attending a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators weekend retreat in Vermont, meeting literary greats such as Wally Lamb and Norma Fox Mazer, she went on to receive her MFA from the Vermont School of Fine Arts in children’s literature. “I felt a sense of home there in that community,” Magoon recalls.
Now fully immersed in the career that she “fell into sideways,” Magoon has an NAACP Image Award, the Margaret A. Edwards Award, and four Coretta Scott King Honors under her belt.
The first of Magoon’s projects launching this year is Blue Stars: Mission One: The Vice Principal Problem (Candlewick, Mar.), a graphic novel collaboration cowritten with Cynthia Leitich Smith and illustrated by Molly Murakami. In the book, estranged cousins Riley and Maya have both moved into their grandmother’s house and find that the connection they shared as children has been fractured, mostly due to their now-clashing personalities. The two reconnect as they uncover their vice principal’s plot to defund school activities and library resources, and they decide to work together to put an end to his sinister scheme.
For Magoon, being able to balance each other’s ideas out was one of the biggest joys of the “dynamic” creative process between herself and Smith. “You don’t go down the wrong path for too long, because the other person catches you and brings you back,” she notes.
She has never shied from the challenge of a new genre or age range. Magoon began her career with The Rock and the River, a YA historical novel, and has gone on to tackle nonfiction accounts of influential Black figures, and a smattering of short stories and essays. She cites middle grade fantasy, such as her Robyn Hoodlum series and The Secret Library (Candlewick, May), as the most challenging genre she’s written in. “I want to rise to that challenge and deliver something that is going to speak to people,” she says.
Magoon describes The Secret Library as a tale of “identity, history, social justice, and figuring out who you are.” When Dally loses her grandfather and discovers that he’s left her a map to an undisclosed location, she follows it to a hidden library that allows her to travel through time to moments where secrets are born. A collision of grief and magic inspires Dally to unravel the mystery within her family’s history.
YA contemporary is the genre “that comes most naturally to me,” Magoon says. The premise of her forthcoming YA novel arose organically from a challenge. A friend asked her to come up with a story premise on the spot while driving together. The idea stuck in Magoon’s mind afterward, and thus Prom Babies (Holt, Apr.) was born. It follows three young women who discover after prom night that they are pregnant. Eighteen years later, as their own children prepare to attend their prom, the two generations navigate teen pregnancy, consent, and agency, complex subjects that were shifting as Magoon was creating her story.
“I started before things changed in the world,” Magoon says. “I’m writing about three girls who chose to keep their pregnancies when abortion was a legal option for everybody. And when it’s not, it starts to feel different. And so that was interesting. It’s not on the page that much because for the older characters it wasn’t an issue in the same way, but their kids do talk about it.”
Closing out Magoon’s year will be her latest additions to Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted series of chapter book biographies, following Magoon’s books on Ruby Bridges and Simone Biles. She Persisted: Naomi Osaka (Philomel, July), illustrated by Alexandra Boiger and Gillian Flint, highlights Osaka’s astounding career achievements as a tennis champion as well as her advocacy for mental health and social justice. Magoon says she felt “a different kind of pressure around how to tell the story about somebody whose contribution is really clear and distinct, and somebody who’s still living and still shaping their identity.”
For Magoon, it’s not only what Osaka does on the court that has an impact; what she does for herself also deserves the spotlight. “We as a society look up to people who achieve highly and whom we consider heroic,” Magoon says. “We take pride in pushing ourselves to the limit. And Naomi’s like, ‘No, I don’t want to push the limit. I want to have a baby, and not pressure myself.’ I think she’s an important model for young people to realize that you don’t have to break yourself for success.”
Imagining her legacy, Magoon considers what her books, filled with the vastness of both the Black and human experience, might encompass in the future. “As a teacher and as a writer whose work hopefully inspires others, I want to contribute something to young people and to the field of children’s literature,” she says. “Fifteen years in, I can say it finally does feel like I’ve done something here. And I want to keep doing it. I want to keep putting out stories and challenging myself and my readers and finding new depths and new heights.”