1ST Library in the World
The BookPeople Modern First Library Initiative: Pairing beloved picture books that will never go out of style along with other favorites that reflect the diverse, global society of the 21st century, we’ve set out to make building a thoughtful library for any child in your life easy.
Joining us this afternoon is Kekla Magoon, author of X: A Novel and .
I’ve long considered myself to be a writer who tells stories that have not been told before, stories that the world needs to hear. My novels explore historical and contemporary civil rights issues: I’ve written about the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, and the controversial shooting of a black teen by a white man—topics that remain all too relevant in the world today.
My Robyn Hoodlum Adventures series came about, in part, as a reaction to having so much seriousness in other areas of my work. It felt important to me to stretch myself as an artist and to create different kinds of books about teens of color. Something lighthearted! A fantasy! Still, it was quite surprising to feel drawn to write about such a familiar character from folklore, a story that’s been told many, many times before.
I was first introduced to Robin Hood in my childhood through the Disney cartoon movie, in which Robin and Maid Marian are played by foxes and other animals form the rest of the cast of characters. I began to seek out other stories about this legendary outlaw, and I delighted in seeing Robin Hood-like things happening in small ways in the real world. I suspect that even at a young age, the story tripped the switches of my budding passion for social justice issues.
A few years ago, I found myself returning to the playful Robin Hood character and reimagining him as a biracial twelve-year-old girl in a futuristic world. I found solace by diving into my own version of Robyn, capturing the rebelliousness, the resourcefulness, the connection to woods and earth, and ultimately, the none-too-subtle social justice message that lies beneath the catchphrase: “rob from the rich to give to the poor.”
As I’ve read the Harry Potters and the Percy Jacksons of the world over the years, I’ve often wondered to myself what it would do for young teens of color to see more such books with themselves as heroes. Being a writer of color, I feel a certain pressure to write characters of color, and to write the stories that the world “needs.” This can be burdensome at times. I want to write characters of color, for sure, but I’m not convinced that all these books need to deal with Race with a capital R, as if the only purpose black characters serve in literature is to enlighten readers about our complicated racial history.
Seeing faces of all colors on book covers is one important facet of diversity in literature, but appearance is not the be-all, end-all of any given character. Robyn’s biraciality is an important facet of her character, but she is also a gymnast, a loner longing for friendship, a rich girl thrust into a world where she has nothing. She is bold and caring, a rebel and a leader. Her biraciality is not her be-all end-all, nor is it an erasable thing. It matters. I expect brown-skinned young readers to be happy to see Robyn’s face on these books, but I don’t expect them to connect with her because of her racial identity. That would not be giving her enough credit as a character. It is reductive to say that kids of color need to read about kids of color, full stop. Black nerds need nerdy books, black athletes need athletic books, black fashionistas need books that explore fashion and trends—our interests are as many and varied as the shades of our skin. We are not monolithic, and we need our books to show us as complex as we are.
For me, that has meant finding lots of different ways to write about the things I care about—how people are treated, how we stand up for one another, how we struggle, how we form our identities, and how we find connection, especially when we feel lost. Robyn does this in her own way, and she has quite a bit of fun in the process.
Kekla Magoon has worked with youth-serving nonprofit organizations in New York City and Chicago. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and her first novel, The Rock and the River, won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent. She resides in New York City and you can visit her at KeklaMagoon.com.