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Kekla Magoon: Social Change is Incremental and We Can All Be Part of It

Kekla Magoon holds a copy of “Revolution in Our Time” at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier. Jane Knight, children’s buyer at the bookstore, said, “Kekla is a gem and it’s an honor to have her in our community.” Photo by Tom McKone.
By Tom McKone

Kekla Magoon knows her readers. As a prolific, highly respected writer of young adult books and a strong advocate for social justice, Magoon respects her readers and thinks highly of what they can do and handle.

“Kids get very inquisitive and have a lot of questions we don’t always have answers to,” Magoon said in a recent interview at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she teaches. “We have to face their questions, and we can’t hide the things that are difficult about the world from them forever.”

“We can’t say, ‘I don’t want you to think about race, because I don’t want you to feel bad that you have privilege for being white.’ That’s not where kids go first. Kids go to empathy. Kids think, ‘Wait, you’re telling me that people who don’t look like me might be treated badly?’ They don’t immediately feel bad about their own situation. They feel bad about the other person, [and ask] ‘How can I help?’”

Children are ready to be part of the solution and part of making the world better, she said. Too often adults, with their own biases, guilt, and feelings, get in the way, Magoon added. Children, she pointed out, are more open-minded and better able to face difficult situations than adults realize.

“It’s sad that racism is such a big problem in our history,” she suggested. “Let’s be part of the solution. What do you think we can do together as a family, as a community, as a class, to make the world a little bit better?”

“Little kids don’t care that their friend doesn’t look the same as them,” she said. “They might be excited about the differences.” She noted that kids may talk about differences in skin, hair, freckles. “They do those kinds of things, but it’s not judgmental. It’s just, ‘Oh, look, look how fun and pretty we all are.’”

Seventeen Books and More on the Way

Magoon has published 17 books for the middle grades and young adults. Nonetheless, her most recent book, “Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People” (Penguin Random House, 2021), is displayed in both the adult and young adult sections of Bear Pond Books. Starting with the publication of her first book, “The Rock and the River’’ (Simon and Schuster, 2009) Magoon has garnered a long string of awards, including an NAACP Image Award and, in 2021, the Margaret A. Edwards Award for her significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature. An internet search showed that she has actually won more awards than she has published books.

Social justice and human rights — passions she got from her parents and grandparents — have permeated her work from the beginning. Born in Michigan to a white American mother of Scottish and Dutch ancestry and a Black father from Cameroon, West Africa, Magoon lived a few years in Cameroon but grew up primarily in Indiana.

After college at Northwestern University, she worked for nonprofits and lived in New York for about 12 years. In 2002, she came up to what then was the Vermont College of Union Institute and University (now the Vermont College of Fine Arts) for an exploratory weekend. Soon she was enrolled in a low-residency MFA program with a focus on writing for children and young adults. She immediately felt attached to the writing community at the college, and she developed a love for both Montpelier and Vermont. 

In 2015, with several books and awards behind her, Magoon joined the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and moved to Montpelier. 

“It’s a really wonderful place to live,” she said, adding that she often needs to travel for speaking engagements and it’s easy to get to Boston, New York, or beyond.

Although Magoon had already been writing (she wrote her first novel while in high school), she blossomed in the MFA program. Her master’s thesis became her first book, “The Rock and the River.” Published 13 years ago, it remains one of her most popular young adult novels. The story of a teenage boy split between loyalty to the path of his civil rights activist father and that of his older brother, who joined the Black Panthers, the book is the first of four in which the Black Panthers have played an important role.

Magoon’s interest in the Panthers grew out of her love of history and the civil rights movement and culminated in “Revolution in Our Time,” published in November. 

“Even if you don’t agree with the choices the Panthers made,” she said, “I think there’s value in discussing and understanding why they made the choices they did … I think that when we’re scared to talk about certain things with our kids, we just have to be really patient with ourselves and with them to try to grapple with what’s challenging about our history. We can’t shy away from the complexities of our history, because if we don’t let kids experience complexity when they’re young, how will they be prepared to grapple with the complexities of being an adult?”

“I understand why parents want to protect their children, but I don’t understand why books are so scary to people. Why ideas are so scary to people,” Magoon said. “Certainly, books and ideas can be transformative, but there’s good in that. There’s power in that. And you know, I think we want our kids to know as much about the world as possible. It’s hard for me to understand wanting your child to know as little about the world as possible. That doesn’t make sense in my mind. I don’t think it keeps them safe.”

Social justice and black and brown characters are central to all of Magoon’s books; however, not all of her books are as intense as “The Rock and the River” or “Revolution in Our Time.” 

Neither scary, nor politically heavy, “Shadows of Sherwood” (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), the first of three books in the Robyn Hoodlum Adventure Series, provides an exciting read for the middle schoolers toward whom the book is geared.

A modern-day take on the Robin Hood myth featuring a biracial 12-year-old heroine, the story includes social and economic disparities, but Magoon presents them in a slightly futuristic dystopian society. 

More Books in the Works

The day I interviewed Magoon, she told me she had finished another novel over the weekend. She said that she currently has 11 more books in various stages of development. They include a couple of picture books and a graphic novel series about two middle-grade superheroes that she is co-authoring with native writer and fellow VCFA faculty member, Cynthia Leitich Smith. 

While the pandemic has limited Magoon to mostly Zoom events, in normal times she regularly speaks at conferences, attends bookstore events, and makes school visits.

For Magoon, writing is central to her sense of identity and her desire to make a difference in the world.

“I’ve always wanted to feel like my voice matters in the world and my work matters in the world and that I’m doing something to make it a better place,” she said. 

“There are people who march, there are people who protest. There are people who found nonprofit organizations and there are people who work for existing nonprofit organizations,” she said. “There are people who run for office. There are lots of different ways to be someone who tries to make a difference in the world.”

“None of those things quite fit, but I’m really good at storytelling. I’m really good at using language to make a point or an argument or express something,” she said. “So, I have found ways to use that skill set to advance things I care about in the world, which have a lot to do with social justice and civil rights.”

To Magoon, everyone can find a way they can meaningfully contribute to a better world.

“As individuals, we underestimate our ability to do a lot of things because we think, ‘I can’t complete that,’ or ‘I can’t complete that huge task,’” she said. “You do a little bit. You show up the next day. You do a little bit. … Everything is incremental. … It does add up, and to me that’s really important. … You just gotta keep plugging away and not give up.”