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Vt. Author Kekla Magoon Wins National Award For Young Adult Novels On Civil Rights History, Racism

A black and white photo of people on steps and people looking at the people on the steps. There's a sign that reads black panther party headquarters
Associated Press File
In this Aug. 13, 1971, file photo, Bobby Seale, chairman of the Black Panther Party, addresses a rally outside the party headquarters in Oakland, California, urging members to boycott certain liquor stores.

The Margaret A. Edwards Award was created in 1988 to honor a body of work by an author deemed to have made a significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature. This year's winner is Montpelier writer Kekla Magoon, honored for four books that delve into civil rights history, and explore themes about confronting racism, white supremacy and injustice.

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

Four of Magoon’s works being honored with the 2021 ALA Edwards Award are:

  • X: A Novel: Co-written with Ilyasah Shabazz, the daughter of the slain civil rights icon Malcolm X, the book is a fictionalized account 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's shot by awhite gunman, Jack Franklin, and the differences between what the witnesses' say, saw, and know.
  • The Rock in the Riverand Fire in the Streets, companion novels that follow two Black teens, Sam and Maxie, as they choose between peaceful protest and civil disobedience or more aggressive action in 1968 Chicago. 

Mitch Wertlieb: Let's talk about this award and how it honors not one book but a body of work, or multiple books. Why was the award created to take on the totality of an author's work?

Kekla Magoon: It's a really incredible honor to have the books as a group lifted up in this way. You know, for work like mine in particular, where I do have a theme, a viewpoint, the award is meant to honor that totality, as you said, that sense that these books build on each other, they are having a conversation with one another. The idea that one book doesn't stand alone, each one is its own experience as a reader. 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'm so curious about this book that you wrote with Malcolm X's daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz. It's called X: A Novel. That must have been incredible to work with her. How did that whole project come about?

It was amazing. I was so delighted to be chosen. Ilyasah had been working on a picture book about her father. She had interest in writing other stories about him. And she had the idea to write a young adult novel about Malcolm X as a teenager. And so she, I believe, was given several books, by (probably) mostly Black authors writing for teens. And she chose a few 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 of being civil rights activists in the traditional sense or joining the Black Panther Party.

And she felt that I had captured something about the Black Panther Party and that movement, which has been widely misrepresented in the same way that Malcolm X's story has been widely misrepresented. And I think that she felt that I could capture what she wanted to capture about his young life that was more true to who he was as a young man than the way people traditionally had been talking about him across pop culture.

I'd like to pick up on that thread a little bit, because telling that story about Malcolm X, I wonder how you might respond to a parent who might say, the subject matter is “too disturbing” somehow, or “too political” for younger readers. What would you say to that criticism?

It's very limiting to suggest that young readers are going to believe and absorb and be swayed by every piece of information that passes in front of them. That's the fear that people are carrying when they suggest that a particular book is inappropriate for a young reader. Because they think, "Oh, what if this information somehow causes this child to make bad decisions in their own life?" That's just a fear that adults carry.

"I think that young people are really much better able to grapple with complexity than adults are. Their whole world is about discovering new things, and trying to understand." - Kekla Magoon, author

I think that young people are really much better able to grapple with complexity than adults are. Their whole world is about discovering new things, and trying to understand.

If you think that the story of Malcolm X is inappropriate for a young reader, it's probably because you don't actually understand the story of Malcolm X. His parents are civil rights activists in the 1920s and '30s, his father was killed by, essentially, the Ku Klux Klan in Michigan when he was about five-years-old. His mother raised all of the children alone, and continued her activism. They faced a lot of discrimination. They faced a lot of strife.

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You know, Malcolm wanted to be a lawyer when he was young, and he was told that he couldn't, because he was a Black man. And he really carried that discouragement with him. He could have been an amazing lawyer but that belief was stripped away from him due to his upbringing. And so when he was 14, he ran away to Boston because he was trying to leave all of that pain behind. He was trying to escape from it. And he didn't believe that he could amount to anything.

And so, to tell that story, but know that Malcolm went from that place of pain and suffering to a place of such recognition and triumph and being someone so powerful and someone so able to make a difference, I think that's a really inspiring story for anyone of any age. And so, the value of reading a book like that is: it can help you overcome that knee-jerk reaction of, “No, this is bad. This is scary. This is wrong,” when you actually don't have all of the information.

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I know that you already believe in what you're doing, and I know you’ve written so many books on these themes, and about civil rights, and about fighting for what's right. But what does this award mean to you as far as furthering those efforts?

It makes me feel powerful in a way that is meaningful. You know, writing is such a solitary act. I spend most of my time at home, especially now in this pandemic landscape. I'm home with my laptop, and there's this sense that I'm just writing into a void, that I'm just telling these stories and I don't know how much they'll matter. Kind of like Malcom, [asking], “Is anything that I do actually making a difference? I don’t know!”

But I continue doing the work, because it's something I'm passionate about. And to be sitting alone in my home, in the middle of a pandemic, and to get a call from this committee that says not only are people out there reading your work, we think that it's making a difference in the landscape of children's and young adult literature, and that classrooms and families and communities are having these conversations about race, about social justice, about bias, about identity … is incredibly powerful.

It is energizing. It is inspiring. It makes me want to keep sitting down at the computer every day, and telling these stories, because they're going somewhere. And that is my way of making a difference in the world.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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