Review of the Day: The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon
And it was around this time that I started wondering why more people weren’t talking about The Season of Styx Malone. So let me tell you a little story. Back in 2013 I wrote a blog post called “2013 Middle Grade Black Boys: Seriously, People?” In it, I sat down and counted all the novels written for kids between the ages of 9-12 that starred black boys as the main characters. Not the sidekicks. Not the helpful best friend. The protagonist. And what I came up with was a total of five books. Three were by sports stars, one was historical fiction, and one was by Walter Dean Myers. That was it. Five. A lot has changed since that time, including the creation of We Need Diverse Books. And while the industry has made a sloth-like maneuver in the right direction, it’s not changing as quickly as I think many of us would like. That said, we’re doing a little better when it comes to middle grade black boys. Still, I doubt you could walk into most bookstores and find five such books face out on the shelves. Into this atmosphere comes The Season of Styx Malone. Here’s what this book is not. It isn’t historical fiction. It doesn’t brood, though it isn’t afraid to tackle serious issues. And as far as I can ascertain it isn’t getting talked about half as much as it should be. Funny and strange and smart and sublime, as far as I can tell THIS is the book everyone should be buzzing about this year. So let me take the lead for you. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.
A baby sister for a bag of fireworks. What could go wrong? When Caleb and Bobby Gene make a deal with the local bully (who has always wanted a baby sis) they never thought they’d be left holding the bag (literally). But at the end of the day their sister is returned, the fireworks are theirs, and they have no idea what to do with them. It takes a chance encounter in the woods behind their house to make their path clear. Enter, Styx Malone. He’s mysterious. He’s trouble. He’s a teenager. And he makes impossible promises with a tongue smooth as silver. It isn’t long before Caleb falls completely under Styx’s sway. Caleb has always believed that he was destined for bigger, better things. Now with Styx at his side the future is shiny, bright, and involves a motorized scooter that can take him far far away. Trouble is, there may be far more to Styx than meets the eye. And it’s not all good.
Recently I heard an author lament the fact that too many novels for kids fail to celebrate “Black joy”. They weren’t wrong. As I write this, the Best Books of the Year lists are coming out and let’s take a peek at the middle grade novels. Of all the books starring black kids, how many of them are fun? Certainly there’s The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson, which is a great history mystery. But beyond that the numbers are pretty darn low, particularly when the protagonist is a boy. By and large, reviewers, librarians, teachers, and other guardians place an inordinate amount of importance on deadly serious fiction over fiction with a penchant for fun. And “Styx Malone” is, right from the get-go, incredibly fun. It’s fun when the boys trade their little sister for a bag of fireworks. It’s fun when they start engaging in a “Great Escalator Trade” with an eye on a shiny green scooter. It’s even fun when they have to weed the garden. I’m not saying there isn’t a core of seriousness beneath the glee, but isn’t a relief to enjoy what you’re reading once in a while?
Back in the day, 2011 or so, I remember reading Kekla’s first middle grade novel Camo Girl. She had a strong new voice and I liked a lot of what I read there. Fast forward seven years and I pick up “Styx Malone”. I hadn’t read as much of Kekla’s intervening work during those seven years, so when I got an eyeful of what she was doing with this book I was caught unaware. If before she was finding her footing, in this book she’s striding, dancing, and generally showing how good she’s become. Take, for example, a sequence where Caleb is in trouble with his mother. Caleb is supposed to be taking out the trash. When Caleb says he’ll “pencil it in for after supper” his mom doesn’t much care for that answer. “Total silence from on high. Total. The kind that pulls the hum out of the light sockets. I swiveled to meet Mom’s icy glare. Her eye lasers stabbed with shivers . . . Mom’s laser eyes continued to lop off my body parts. How did she expect me to take out the trash with no arms?” Did you hear that? Did you hear how enticing that writing is? Who wouldn’t want to know more about this situation? Who wouldn’t want to read a whole book of this kind of writing? And who wouldn’t want to know these characters?
Speaking of characters, I like to keep a running list of unreliable narrators in children’s books. It’s a subgenre, to be sure, but a consistent one. Still, there’s an active difference between characters that are purposefully unreliable and characters that are unreliable because they themselves are taken in by another. From the moment they meet, Caleb is in Styx’s pocket. For the boy, Styx represents all his hopes and dreams. And one criticism I’ve heard lobbed against the book is that Caleb’s adoration is too much. It tells the reader what to think and what to believe. What this critique misses is the fact that child readers are given every opportunity to detect the holes in Caleb’s fancy. He wants to believe in Styx so badly that he’s willing to overlook inconsistencies and problematic choices. His brother, Bobby Gene, the rock of the novel, will bring up these problems and Caleb will shoot him down as quickly as possible to avoid seeing the truth. I wonder at what point the child readers will have Styx’s number. Definitely before Caleb does, that’s for sure.
How well a work of fiction speaks to the politics and issues of the day is important. In 2018 we do not lack for issue tales. Stories that tackle head-on such topics as police brutality, immigration, homophobia, and more are pretty darn prevalent. But the light-hearted fun books have a responsibility too. Since they weren’t written in a vacuum, they have to somehow tip their hat at reality while also maintaining their own storyline and tone. It would have been infinitely easy for Kekla Magoon to place her story in some kind of an idealized Anytown, U.S.A. where racism does not exist. Instead, she does make the town pretty idyllic (it’s small and the kids have a lot of time to themselves and freedom to run around without helicopter parents) but not unrealistic. Take the dad, for example. The through line with this book is that he and Caleb have diametrically opposed worldviews. Caleb wants to leave Sutton, Indiana as soon as his two legs will take him. His dad, however, keeps hammering home the idea that in Sutton the family is “safe”. Outside the world is a dangerous place, but here they have a support network. A kid isn’t necessarily going to pick up on a lot of what the dad is saying here, but for the adult reader it’s pretty clear that dad’s fears are the fears of black parents for their sons everywhere.
Sometimes my 7-year-old daughter will catch me reading a book for kids and ask me to summarize the plot. I had a particularly hard time doing this for “Styx Malone”. Now that I’ve finished the book and can see how all the pieces fit into the whole, it’s much easier. But as I was reading it I kept thinking to myself, “I have no idea where all of this is going.” It was a novel experience and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. It isn’t that Magoon doesn’t have a clear-cut plot in mind. It’s more that her path is a winding one. It meanders through Caleb’s perceptions, in out and again, so that you really can’t see the whole until you’ve taken in all the different parts. I suppose that’s a bit like life itself. It’s also how you come to know people. Styx Malone himself is seen just in bits and spits and spurts for the longest of times. When you get a better sense of his true self, it’s only after you’ve put all the pieces together.
I know that there are folks in this world that love the Newbery winning book Maniac Magee. There are definitely some surface similarities between that title and this one. In both cases the old “a stranger comes to town” trope is combined with elements of the good old-fashioned American tall tale. But for all its summer fun and hijinks, I actually feel like the core of this book is stronger than Spinelli’s classic. Because what Magoon is doing here is speaking to that spark inside of every kid that tells them that they’re special. That they count in some way. That their future is bright and open and shining. Then, while she distracts you with the core message, she effortlessly works in serious concepts like the foster care system, prejudice, and the way the adults in your life can let you down. She isn’t giving you a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. This is necessary sugar. Fun with purpose. Laughs with heart. Everything, in fact, that a good book for kids should strive to be. Don’t be fooled by the packaging. This is one little book that lands a heck of a punch and is amusing every step of the way. Unforgettable.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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