Author Interview: Part 1–Between the Lines of “Camo Girl”
Based in New York City, author Kekla Magoon is a writing machine! Magoon is the award-winning author of The Rock and the River. Magoon is already working on a companion novel called Fire in the Streets. Meanwhile, her new, highly-anticipated novel, Camo Girl hit bookshelves in January of 2011, and has been well received. " Teen Voices editorial assistant Lindsay McCormack was able to speak with Magoon about her up-and-coming novels.
Teen Voices (TV): Your first published book, The Rock and the River, received a lot of positive attention: the John Steptoe Award, an NAACP Spirit Award nomination, and recommendations on several well-known book lists. How did it feel to receive this recognition for your first novel?
Kekla Magoon (KM): It was exciting! I was particularly pleased that people were interested in the subject matter that I was dealing with in The Rock and the River. It's a novel set in 1968 Chicago, and it's about a boy who is 13 years old. He's trying to decide if he's going to be a civil rights activist like his father, or join the Black Panthers, like his brother.
There wasn't very much at all that had been written for young readers about the Black Panther Party. It's been wonderful in that my book has called more attention to a historical moment that doesn't get looked at that much when we learn about the civil rights movement, particularly in middle school." To be recognized by librarians with the Steptoe Award was a particularly high honor." Librarians definitely have a reputation for knowing good books when they see them!
TV: In your most recent novel, Camo Girl, sixth-grader Ella tries to navigate the complex world of friendships, bullying, and her own struggle with self-image. What inspired you to write this story?
KM:" I have many inspirations for writing the story. The main one is that it seems to be a very common theme among middle-school students to feel like you don't fit in, like you don't want to make friends, or like you have to choose between different groups of friends. For me it was a little bit about speaking to middle-school kids who are going through these things now, and remembering back to what I experienced at their age. I was similar to Ella in certain ways. I was one of the only black or bi-racial kids in my school, so I know what it's like to feel excluded and to feel differentI wanted to write something that would reflect my experiences but that also would hopefully speak to other people and their own experiences.
TV: What types of responses have you had from young readers of your books?
KM: With The Rock and the River, the biggest response was that kids had never heard of the Black Panther Party. They had a very limited view of the civil rights movement. I get interesting feedback from some middle-school and high-school students who really liked the relationship between the brothers in The Rock and the River. I've gotten some letters from kids who said, "This is helping me understand my siblings better," or "my relationship with my siblings better." I've heard from kids who seemed to really understand how angry my characters were in that book, and who worried about race and how it was affecting them in their day-to-day lives. And there are kids today who still feel that pressure even though we're sort of taught that the civil rights movement is "over" and that we have "equality" now. There's still a lot of racism and prejudice in our culture, and we still deal with that as black people. So some of the kids were expressing their own experiences with racism, which was sad to hear sometimes, but good to know that the book that I'm writing, even though it's about something that took place many years ago, is still relevant and relates to kids' lives.
I've done several school presentations about Camo Girl." I often say that I know how it feels to be excluded in middle school or to feel a little bit different, and everybody in the room kind of nods their heads. I get the impression that everybody, at some point in their life, feels like they're a little bit different. Whether it's in middle school, or whether it's later or earlier, it seems to be something that a lot of people can relate to.
TV: What books affected you most when you were a teen? What characters did you love/identify with/admire?
KM: The book that I remember the most strongly from middle-school reading was Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor. That's an historical fiction book about a black family, and there are some scenes in that book that I see crystal clearly in my mind, still to this day. They were so vivid for me when I read them and it was perhaps the first novel I had read about black characters. It had black kids on the cover which was really exciting, and I remember being really interested in historical fiction.
I didn't like history class [laughs], but I did like historical fiction because those were stories. In historical fiction, there were all of these characters and emotions and adventures that you experience. So that book was particularly moving to me and I remember when I was writing The Rock and the River I thought, "If kids who read The Rock and the River could feel at all how I felt when I read Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, I would be really, really happy."
TV: What are you working on now?
KM: I'm working on two things. I just finished some editorial revisions on a book that's going to be a companion novel to The Rock and the River. It's called Fire in the Streets. The narrator, who is a supporting character from The Rock and the River, is telling her own story." She's joining the Black Panther Party and wants to prove herself as a Panther.
The second project is called 37 Things I Love, and that is a contemporary, young adult novel about friendship and family in high school. It's a 15-year-old character who's having some family difficulties, and she realizes in the midst of that that the friends she's made and have considered her best friends are not being very good friends to her. So she has to look for new friends, and she finds some. That book is going to be published in May of 2012.
TV: Have you read any great books recently that our readers shouldn't miss?
KM: Oooo [laughs] that's a good question! Most recently, I've read some historical novels that an author friend of mine, Laurie Calkhoven, has written. Her newest one is coming out next spring—it's a boys-at- wartime series, and I always loved those kinds of books when I was younger. Will at the Battle of Gettysburg is the most recent one. The one that's coming up is going to be Michael at the Invasion of France. The very first one from several years ago is Daniel at the Siege of Boston. So those are fun middle-grades action-adventure stories.
Check out a review of Cameo Girl in the Fall 2011/Winter 2012 issue of our print magazine, Teen Voices.
Want to be a writer just like Kekla Magoon? Stay tuned to Part 2, where Magoon gives us the inside scoop on her writing habits, character development, and writing tips!
Tagged as: 37 Things I Love, Author interviews, Camo Girl, Fire in the Streets, Kekla Magoon, Lindsay McCormack, The Rock and The River