Kekla Magoon had long been a student of the Civil Rights Movement. She devoured stories about that period and believed deeply in non-violence. What would she have done back then? Kekla didn’t have to wonder. She knew: She would have stood alongside foot soldiers in battlegrounds across the South.
But one day, Kekla learned about the Black Panthers’ work as community organizers. They offered free breakfasts for school children. They provided free medical clinics and clothing. The more Kekla learned about the Panthers’ work in the community, the more questions she had about herself. She could believe in their mission of service. Could she believe in the idea of wanting to fight back against the vise of injustice too? What would Kekla have done back then? She wasn’t so sure anymore.
Searching for the answers to those questions helped lead to the birth of her moving debut novel, The Rock & The River (Aladdin, 2009). Kekla deftly explores the life of Sam, who’s caught between two ideologies — that of his brother, Stick, and that of his father, Roland Childs. Praised for its rich character development and full-rendering of complex relationships and history, The Rock & The River is a poignant and important story that fills a gap in literature for young people.
We are proud to salute Kekla Magoon on day 3 of our campaign:
How did your childhood love of reading bloom?
My parents read to me a lot, and I learned to read early and I suspect that helped me to fall in love with books. My mom took us to the library every week, and I would check out huge stacks of paperbacks at a time. Huge. I read in class, and on the bus, and under the covers well past my bedtime. Books and me….well, it was just meant to be.
What inspired your first stories?
I’m not sure about my very young stories, but I know as a teenager I based my fictional “narratives” on my own life. I would make up scenes between me and my friends, or people I wanted to be friends with, or someone I had a crush on, etc. I was fairly shy, so I found it comforting to have some kind of “do-over” option when I didn’t say the right thing, or take the action that I wanted to in real life.
How did your parents encourage your creativity?
They definitely encouraged creative thinking and creative play when I was little. And they were big on books and reading, which I’m sure helped form my own affection for storytelling. I would venture to say, though, that my parents’ support of me now is as important as it was during the formative years when the seeds of creativity are planted and allowed to bloom. Now, they are big supporters of my book. They’ve purchased dozens of copies this year to give away to friends and family, not to mention the fact that they have visited pretty much every library and bookstore in northeast Indiana (and parts of southern Michigan….) to be sure that my book is in stock. I really appreciate my midwest marketing team!
You wrote your first novel in high school. What was it about? What inspired you to write it? How did that experience change you?
Oh, dear. My first novel….or should I say, “novel.” It was only about sixty pages long. At the time, it seemed like the great opus of the world. It was a mystery/suspense story about a female detective. I’m not entirely sure what inspired me to write it. It was the end of my senior year in high school, and I wrote it in a matter of days. I was probably fueled in part by nervousness over the time of transition that I was about to enter. There must’ve been something about the story that I just needed to write, but it was long before I considered writing as a career. Later, looking back, the enthusiasm that I had for that project at a young age did help me accept that maybe writing was a true passion of my life, and not a passing fad. It helped me think more seriously about pursuing my master’s degree and striving to make writing more than just a side gig.
You’re a MFA graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts. How did that experience help you grow as a writer? What seed of The Rock and the River came to you first? How did your manuscript evolve? When did you know it would become your creative thesis?
I worked on The Rock and the River beginning in the second semester. I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to shape it into my creative thesis. I was really excited about the subject matter, and it really was the first idea I’d had that inspired me to push far enough to turn it into a real book. I’d had several 60-80 page novel attempts that I was working with up until that point, but I really was still learning how to build a unique, novel-length narrative. I knew I wanted to write something about the Black Panthers, and when these two brother characters came to me, I knew that it would be part of their story.
Through your unforgettable characters like Sam, Stick and their father Roland Childs, you explore important themes like non-violence and militancy, brotherhood, activism and sacrifice. At its heart, yours is a story that makes you feel. What emotion drove the narrative of the book? How did you weave the threads of the story together?
If I have to pick one central emotion, I’d go with confusion, though anger is probably a close second. Sam’s challenge in the book is to grapple with a difficult decision that leaves him puzzling over what is right. His father is a civil rights leader, close to Dr. King, but his brother Stick is joining the Black Panther Party. Confusion reigns. What do you do when the two people you look up to most, those who you strive to emulate, split off in radically different directions? What happens when your lifelong beliefs are challenged? How do you channel your anger when the world around you is so unjust that you feel you could jump out of your skin? Sam struggles to answer these questions in his own mind, and his experiences throughout the book help shape the actions he takes. To build the plot, I began to think deeply about the world Sam lived in, who he would meet, what he would witness, what he would fear, how he would feel, and the story threads began weaving from there.
The Rock and the River is a rich and layered story that will put the Black Panther Party in a new light for many people. Why was it important to you to show a more complete picture of that organization?
The Black Panthers became intriguing to me the first time I learned that they had been community organizers, in addition to having a militant bent. I was 23 years old, and I had never been exposed to this side of their movement. I found that outrageous. My interest was piqued, and the more I read and the more I studied the Panthers, I craved the opportunity to write about them. I wanted to share what I had learned, especially with young people. The new information was overwhelming to me, and I found part of my sense of self being called into question. I’d always studied and been fascinated by the civil rights movement. I was sure that if I’d lived back then, I’d have been right there on the front lines in Montgomery or Birmingham. I believed strongly in the cause. I would have acted. Non-violence all the way. I was certain. But suddenly a new voice was nagging me. What if you had been a Panther? This blew my mind. I’ve no desire to carry a gun, but I could have gotten excited about the community organizing work the Panthers were doing. I could have been one of the people too frustrated with the injustice to be satisfied with not fighting back. I could see those things about myself, and it sent me into a tailspin. How would I decide? How did real people decide? What would it feel like to be right there, in that moment in time, and have to commit your life to one or the other, or decide to take no action and have to live with that, too? I knew I had the makings of a novel, and it was just a matter of time before I figured out how to bring it to life.
Did writing the story change you? In what ways?
Sure. Well, it was the first novel I’d written, and every novel changes you a little bit. More specifically, it helped me to touch an experience that I’d been wondering about for a long time–involvement in the civil rights era. I’ll never know what it was really like to be there, then, but I feel that writing this helped me get as close as I can to understanding what it might have been like.
Please tell us about your journey to publication. What were the toughest and most rewarding moments?
I began submitting this book to editors in the summer of 2005. It made its way through three editors at two different houses before it arrived at Aladdin, and the full process took over two years. It felt like forever to me, but I know it was not as long as most people spend submitting their first novel, so I also feel lucky. Among the toughest moments were receiving the (nice, detailed) rejection letter from the first editor, and the request for a revision on spec from the second. I completed the revision on spec, but ended up having to submit to a new editor when it was done. The truly toughest moment was when the new editor contacted me regarding additional revisions, far more extensive than what I had already done on spec. I was nearly certain that a contract would follow, if I agreed to these drastic changes, but they simply did not resonate with me. We couldn’t come together on it, and my window of opportunity closed. In retrospect, this rough patch became a deeply rewarding moment, because I held true to my vision for the book, which turned out to be the right thing (judging by my own happiness, as well as by the reviews and awards!). The most lovely, rewarding moment was the call in spring 2008 from my soon-to-be editor, Kate, saying Aladdin was going to acquire the book!
What do you want people to take away from The Rock and the River?
Mostly, I want them to take away the experience of having read a good story. And I’d like the book to inspire people to have a conversation about it, whether it be in a classroom or between colleages, family or friends. I believe there is a lot still to be dealt with in our country, with regard to the events of the 1960s, and I love having the opportunity to inspire those discussions. I also hope the book broadens people’s perspectives on The Black Panther Party, and really, the civil rights movement in general. Sometimes the way we talk about that time period makes it sound all too perfect, too pat, and while we shake our heads at the injustices that occur, there is a finality about it being of the past. To me, the Black Panthers makes it easier to talk about the things that haven’t changed, within the context of the community organizing that they did. We still need that kind of work, so the conversation about it is more dynamic than talking about overcoming legal segregation, which is really a thing of the past.
Please talk about the feedback you received from children, teachers and librarians, veterans of the movement.
Among the first questions I get from children are why I would write about something that happened so long ago, and was I alive in the civil rights movement–which, the way they say it, sounds like the stone age. Nothing like hanging with middle schoolers to make you feel old! But the best of the feedback is actually related to this because so many people in their lives–librarians, teachers, grandparents and some of their parents–were alive and can remember 1968. This book published in this time lends itself to a dynamic intergenerational dialogue that I really hope continues to grow. For 12 year olds, civil rights is ancient history. To people my age (approaching 30) it’s recent history, the impact of which we can see in our own lives. For people just slightly older than me, it is a wispy or poignant memory. And for my parents and elders, it is deep-set, ingrained knowledge–the wisdom of experience. When these perspectives unite, something strong and profound can come of it.
I love talking with people of all ages about the book. I enjoy unpacking the tidbits of history for the very young, and I enjoy having them unpacked for me by the very elderly. And everyone in between. I feel enriched from both directions, by what I have to offer and what I’m able to receive. I’ve discovered that everyone with a memory of 1968 has a story to share about that time, and by writing this book, I’ve invited them to open those stories to me. They are incredible, rich, life-giving tales of action, inaction, confusion, fear, sacrifice, joy and wonder. I’m blown away by the depth of reaction I’ve received from readers older than me. Some receive the novel as a piece of truth heretofore untold, which is immensely flattering to me as an author. Others see themselves in it, or see how they wish they had been. It was such a volatile, impressionable time in history, so perhaps it was impossible to emerge from that unchanged. And perhaps there haven’t been many opportunities for people to share these stories with one another; there’s something unspoken and suppressed about that time that needs still to be released. Some come to me in hushed tones, as if what they know can’t get out, or shouldn’t go too far. But it’s time. And I hope my young audience will get to connect with some of these real stories, so that they can begin to see beyond the book as fiction, to the elements of truth and history that it carries, even if they are a small part of the whole.
You’ve earned lots of well-deserved praise for The Rock and the River from starred reviews to the Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe Award. Congratulations! What does that recognition mean to you?
It means a lot. It’s immensely gratifying to know that my work has been so well received. Working in a field where quality is so subjective is difficult at times. I feel confident in my work, and in what I have to say, but at the same time it’s a vulnerable act to put something as special and personal as a novel into the public eye. It can be nerve-wracking, no matter how good the feedback is. The most valuable thing I’ve learned about myself in the midst of the award buzz is how to be comfortable having my book out there, whether it earns praise or not. Once I entered that mindset, I found the critical comments about the book didn’t bother me, and I could embrace the positive reviews and be uplifted by them, without needing them in order to feel validated. I believe in what I’m doing, and that my work is worthy of being read. The awards are just icing on the cake…but extremely delicious icing!
How do you measure your success?
Hmmm. Actually, I think there are a lot of ways to measure success, and I’m not sure that I really could choose one that is most dominant. There’s the success of simply getting a book published, which is not so easy to do. There’s the success of said book being well received, reviewed and bestowed with awards, which feels so special. There’s financial success, which comes with high book sales and so forth, which I value, too. I enjoy receiving letters from young readers, and I do believe that positively affecting even just a few kids is worth it all. Each of those things are important to me on different levels. I want the intangible things–like fulfillment, freedom, happiness and the opportunity to make a difference in the world–more than I want money, but I need some money to achieve such things, so all of those are factors in what I consider real “success.” Bottom line: To be able to continue making a living doing what I enjoy most, what comes naturally to me, and what is most meaningful to me–that is success.
On your website, you share that history is one of your favorite subjects to read and write about. What draws you to history?
I read a lot of historical fiction as a teenager, but if you had asked me back then, I probably would have said I hated history. It took me years (literally) to realize that a love of historical fiction probably relates to a love of history, at least on some level. I love intense, dramatic stories, and when it’s told right, history is nothing but a long, dramatic story. If it’s told wrong, or if you downplay the narrative aspects, then history degenerates into a list of names, dates, times and places where stuff happened. Ugh. Historical fiction doesn’t suffer from the problems that textbooks do. In historical fiction (and well-crafted non-fiction, to be fair), you get to lose yourself in the experiences of individuals acting within a historical context. This is how I learned to love history. By trying to see different times and places through the eyes of the people who really lived then. Fiction is a great way to explore the past, in an active, connected and emotional way. And if you accidentally learn some facts along the way, where’s the harm in that?
In one interview you said that many schoolchildren just know the heroes of history. How does that realization impact what you do? What areas would you like to see better explored? Why do you think they’re overlooked?
I do believe that history is taught in a simplified way to young children. It’s hard to get around it, really, given that there is so much to learn, and so little time to impart it all. The problem is that by the time they’re teenagers, the familiar narratives are so…familiar…that it’s hard to add to them. As kids, we’re taught to memorize the names of the presidents, and big chunks of time are synthesized into easy-to-remember single stories. Anecdotes, as opposed to a broader, cohesive narrative. Particularly when it comes to black history, which is typically taught in a quick lump in February, there’s barely time for more than soundbites. Those soundbites typically extoll the virtues and contributions of a select few individuals. Heroes, you might say, whose legacy makes them larger than life. Harriet Tubman. Abraham Lincoln. Rosa Parks. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and today, President Barack Obama. These individuals have become iconic, representing something larger than what any one person can truly do. Yet, the history we tell makes it seem as if they acted alone, or were embued with superhuman powers not granted to the ordinary folk. Hero-based history contains some troubling messages for youth, because as they grow, they begin to realize their human limitations. Sure when you’re four years old, you dream of being an astronaut, or becoming president, but by the time you’re fourteen, you understand that so few people can really achieve those positions. If all you’ve ever known is that heroes make history, how quickly do you give up your dreams, believing you can’t make a difference after all?
Within Black History, Dr. King is the perfect example of this phenomenon. In our collective memory, Dr. King is no longer just a man; he represents something greater than himself. He’s spoken of as if he embodied the movement, which makes him seem larger than life. I don’t mean to diminish his contribution, but to place it more realistically within the Civil Rights Movement paradigm. He made speeches that motivated people, but it wasn’t the speeches that made change happen—it was the actions of the people he motivated. Entire communities rose up, and THAT was the revolutionary act. History teaches that when heroes act, the world changes. So should we all sit around and wait for the next hero to show up? Not everybody can be Dr. King, but everybody can make a contribution. I would like to see history focus more on broader pictures, rather than snapshots.
I’ve worked in youth-serving non-profit organizations in urban areas, where youth workers struggle day in and day out to convince young black teens that if they band together, they can make a difference. The entire field of community organizing is based on the philosophy that, united, any group of people can effectively change their own circumstances, and even change the world. Yet, young people today take a lot of convincing. Why? I have to believe that, in part, it’s because they don’t understand how history really happened, and how many hands it took to overturn slavery, segregation, and more. My particular passion is educating youth of color about the civil rights movement. This was a movement largely fueled by the energy, passion, anger and commitment of young people. Why is that not taught? Why can every school group I visit quote from the “I Have a Dream” speech, but has never heard of the Freedom Rides? I find this deeply disheartening.
The true facts of the civil rights movement are glossed over when they’re presented to kids. We speak about non-violent civil disobedience as if it was all about holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome” until the laws miraculously changed. We may mention something about dogs and firehoses, but do we really take time to examine the courage that was required to face them down? Not really. We treat non-violence as if it was the obvious solution to an egregious problem, and it all comes across sounding really easy. It wasn’t. Many people died for this cause, and others came close. We forget to talk about how much anger there was, from both sides, and how people chose to deal with it in different ways. I’ve received letters from readers who were surprised by the anger that my characters experience. They understood and related to that anger, as teens living their lives today. They connected to that anger, and it made them think differently. It got them excited. I think we do our young people a great injustice when we’re not fully honest with them, or when we try to paint a pretty picture over something that was raw and ugly in its own time. If my novel can shed a little bit of light on some of those “dark corners” of history, then I feel I’m making a difference in my own way.
You’re co-editor of the children and young adult section of Hunger Mountain. Please tell us about what that work means to you.
It’s facinating to be on the other side of the editorial process, to view things from a different angle. I’m definitely a writer first, but I do find that editing and critiquing other people’s work helps strengthen my own. I enjoy the partnership with my co-editor, Bethany Hegedus, so the collaborative nature of the work is a nice break from the solitude of writing. It’s also meaningful to be part of this particular journal since it’s associated with Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I got my MFA. I feel a special attachment to the place!
What’s next for you? What writing projects are you working on?
My contract with Aladdin was for two books; I’m working on the second one now. It’s a contemporary middle grade. I’m just finishing it up now. I have other projects in various stages of completion, including a YA manuscript that’s currently with my agent and a couple other YAs that I’m looking forward to returning to work on after Book 2 is turned in.
I know from your site that you love ice cream. What’s your favorite flavor?
In a waffle cone: Vanilla. Out of the carton: Strawberry. In a dish: Cookies & Cream or Pralines ‘n’ Cream. My all time favorite flavor from childhood is Superman (which may just be multicolored vanilla, in truth) but I haven’t been able to find it as an adult. But the quest continues…
What’s your greatest joy?
Besides ice cream? I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. In writing, though, I especially enjoy the moments when the words flow smoothly and I manage to capture a certain thought in the perfect way.
The Buzz on The Rock & The River:
Kekla Magoon – Winner of the 2010 Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe New Talent Award
“In Chicago in 1968, Sam, 14, obeys his father, an eloquent civil-rights leader who is close with Dr. King and is passionately committed to nonviolent protest. But after King is assassinated and Sam witnesses police brutality toward a friend, Sam follows his rebellious older brother, Stephen (“Stick”), and joins the Black Panthers, whose revolutionary platform is the opposite of the nonviolent philosophy that Sam has been taught at home. Then Sam’s father is stabbed. Will the brothers retaliate with violence? True to the young teen’s viewpoint, this taut, eloquent first novel will make readers feel what it was like to be young, black, and militant 40 years ago, including the seething fury and desperation over the daily discrimination that drove the oppressed to fight back. Sam’s middle-class family is loving and loyal, even when their quarrels are intense; and Magoon draws the characters without sentimentality. Along with the family drama, the politics will grab readers, especially the Panthers’ political education classes and their call for “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.” A long author’s note fills in background in this important title for YA American history classes.”
— Booklist, Starred Review
Sam Childs, 13, is growing up in Chicago in 1968. His father is a civil rights activist, and the boy has been involved in peaceful demonstrations with his family. When he and his girlfriend, Maxie, witness the brutal beating of a friend at the hands of the police, his world begins to change dramatically. His 17-year-old brother brings a gun home and hides it in their shared room. Next thing Sam knows, Stick has run away from home and is involved with the Black Panther Party, whose philosophy his dad does not share. The brutality of the beating has wrought a change in Sam as well, and the good works he sees the Panthers doing in his neighborhood make him question his dad’s opinion. The characters are well drawn and the complexities of the relationships between Roland Childs and his two sons are moving. The episodes of violence are graphic, but necessary to move the plot forward, and Magoon portrays well the tension between the Panthers and the Civil Rights Movement. An author’s note provides further historical context. While the image of the Black Panther Party is somewhat idealized, this is an important book about a historical reality that has not been dealt with in juvenile fiction.
— School Library Journal