Our editors' pick for the best children's book of 2018 went to Kekla Magoon's middle grade novel, The Season of Styx Malone. What made this one so special? A winning story of three boys who become friends, have adventures, and end up teaching each other about trust and family. Styx Malone is new to the neighborhood and brothers Caleb and Bobby Gene think he's the most interesting person they've ever met. Styx shares his Great Escalator Trade plan and together they work their way towards an ambitious goal--a moped. Styx fuels Caleb's desire to see more of the world, to go beyond the boundaries his parents have set in their hopes of keeping him safe. The boys get into some trouble, but the mistakes they make come with valuable lessons. The Season of Styx Malone is heart-warming and fun, a book I think both kids and parents will enjoy for years to come.
Author Kekla Magoon is a two-time Coretta Scott King Honor award winner, and in the exclusive piece below, she talks about writing The Season of Styx Malone:
“The biggest trouble we ever got into in our lives, we got into with Styx Malone,” says narrator Caleb Franklin in the opening chapter of The Season of Styx Malone. I sometimes wonder how different readers will receive this line, which is part of a passage that helps set the stage for the entire novel. I hope it inspires a vicarious thrill of possibilities. I imagine readers rubbing their hands together in anticipatory glee, thinking, If I turn the page, what will these boys get up to?
Why is it fun to read about characters you know are going to get in trouble? Perhaps because there is nothing more human than chasing a wild idea, with your sights set firmly on victory…and then royally screwing it up. So much of storytelling is about people making mistakes and facing the consequences, or having to wriggle out of a mess, or otherwise getting in trouble. It’s what we love to read!
The very concept of trouble, of course, is relative. Caleb (age 10) and Bobby Gene (age 11) actually have a whole lot of fun getting into this so-called trouble with their older neighbor. Styx Malone is sixteen, and he has seen the world. At least, more of the world than Caleb and Bobby Gene, who’ve never left their hometown of Sutton, Indiana. Styx hails from nearby Indianapolis, and the story begins when he applies his worldly wisdom to help the brothers solve a big problem—getting rid of a large bag of contraband fireworks they’ve stumbled into possessing. Styx proposes a clever, something-for-nothing scheme to trade the fireworks for a moped, and quickly becomes a hero and role model in the younger boys’ eyes, for better and worse. Mostly for better, in my view, although Caleb and Bobby Gene’s parents don’t quite agree.
Caleb craves freedom and adventure, but he barely knows he craves it until he meets Styx Malone. Up until then, he simply wants to be something other than ordinary. Styx awakens in Caleb new questions about the world and how he fits into it. Questions that are not easy to answer—at least not without a few growing pains. Following Styx, Caleb begins to understand how it feels to stretch yourself to be something impossible.
But what does “impossible” even mean? Why should we limit ourselves to what is expected or what has been seen before, or what has been judged possible? Just like different people have different definitions of trouble, what is possible is relative too. When children look at the world, they see possibilities. They see the limitless potential of a cardboard box to become a clubhouse, a spaceship, a forest hideaway, a submarine, a stuffed animal hospital, and so on. That cardboard box is not a thing to throw away. It’s not a mere container, it contains multitudes.
It is adults who call things useless. It is adults who close doors and draw borders around spaces, who place limitations on where we can go and what we can dare to imagine or attempt. It is adults for whom what is other is scary. Children run toward new ideas with open arms. Who are we to stop them?
Caleb and Bobby Gene Franklin find themselves at the precipice of young adulthood. The freedom and adventure that Styx Malone promises beckons them beyond the boundaries that have been drawn for them: their small town of Sutton, Indiana, and even their very own backyard. Impossible is not a word in Styx Malone’s vocabulary, and in the lives of these boys, that changes everything. Their explorations are important, necessary. Inevitable, even. And a huge part of growing up. It’s the grownups in their lives that call these adventures “troublesome.”
Playing with these ideas helped me in the process of writing The Season of Styx Malone. What is possible? What can my characters learn from getting themselves into a bit of trouble? Or a lot of trouble? Who gets to decide what trouble is, and if taking a big risk or working through a mistake helps me find my place in the world, what’s wrong with a little bit of trouble? Maybe sometimes, a little bit of trouble can be a good thing.