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The Writer’s Page: The Un-Hero’s Journey

Kekla Magoon at the Allen County Public Library’s Pontiac Branch in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Photo: Benita Browning

My very first author presentation was in a library branch in my hometown, the Allen County Public Library’s Pontiac Branch in Fort Wayne, Indiana. My first book, The Rock and the River, had just come out and I was eager to get some experience in front of an audience. The library had a regular group of teens who hung out there after school, and the Boys & Girls Club across the street brought over some younger children. The thirty assembled kids covered a wide age range, from kindergarten to high school.

I had no PowerPoint slideshow, no bells and whistles. Just myself and a library cart full of copies of The Rock and the River. I fought the inner surges of doubt:

Just because Simon & Schuster published me doesn’t mean kids are going to actually want to read my book.

How do I talk to five-year-olds and fifteen-year-olds at the same time?

What have I gotten myself into?

The littlest ones filed into the front row, despite their being way too young for the book. I remember staring at their small, upturned faces and trying to tell myself, “You’ve got this.”

There was no turning back. The librarian introduced me, and suddenly I was on. Sixty minutes to fill. I drew on skills honed as a former camp counselor. Smile! Be upbeat! Be slightly goofy! But not too goofy…you’re talking about racism, after all. I finished my talk and the kids clapped politely. Then something amazing happened. The youngsters in the front row slid out of their chairs, as one, and came toward me, their arms outstretched. I thought they were going to hug me, or ask questions, but they didn’t. They reached out their index fingers and began touching my skin.

They poked at my hands and arms, and I still choke up thinking about it. There was so much spoken in that silent contact.

You are black.

You look like us.

You came from where we come from. You are real and we can touch you.

And you made a book, like the ones we read every day.

As they moved past me, toward the library cart to examine the book, I could feel their eyes opening, their world opening.

Someone who came from where we come from, who looks like us, can make a book.

I felt heroic.

Scratch that. I was heroic. In that room, in that moment, I became heroic.

Probably no one would ever know. But does that mean I didn’t make a difference?

  *    *    *

I began with this story, casting myself as a hero, partly because I knew it would catch your attention. Culturally, we’re quite obsessed with hero narratives. We like biographies of famous Americans. We hold up celebrities as special. In many different ways we give power to that which is exceptional. An unlikely-hero narrative does make a great story — but in the aggregate, what message does it send to kids if it seems like the only people who can make a difference in the world are “heroes” with exceptional talents that set them apart from the crowd? It’s easy to forget that a “hero’s journey” can apply to any character, any person. I began with a story of myself as a hero, but one whose heroism emerged from a deeply ordinary moment.

What if you’re ordinary, or feel ordinary? Can you still be a hero? Certainly, one can argue that every child is exceptional in his or her own way, but the fact of the matter is, we’re not all going to have record-setting achievements, or make world-changing waves, or be the first to do something amazing. And kids know it. Thus, it becomes all too easy for them to underestimate their own potential.

We all want to believe we’re special, yet most of us also struggle with self-doubt. We receive mixed messages — sometimes we’re told we’re great and we begin to feel entitled to respect and appreciation. Other times we don’t get enough praise and we begin to fear we have nothing to offer. Some children live with way too much discouragement. When we fixate on heroism, we forget to teach that the key to making a difference is to be someone who participates, someone who tries hard to do the right thing. It is about effort, not magic. Heroism is built, not born. And it can look a lot of different ways.

Individual achievement and exceptionalism are over-celebrated in our cultural context. There is limited value in individual greatness. Leadership, for example, is looked upon as an individual trait. But it’s not about an individual — it’s about how he or she interacts with others. The true impact of greatness is rarely about the individual, even if the achievement is celebrated as such. The polio vaccine — its development credited to one man, Jonas Salk — saved millions of lives, and not all by Salk’s hand. The first successful heart transplant led to thousands more, performed by many more “ordinary” surgeons. Heroic acts do not exist in a vacuum. Great achievements have ripple effects that rely upon more than one hero alone. If you read between the lines of any famous person’s biography, you’ll also find evidence of the family or friends or colleagues who supported that person. It is just as valuable to be a good friend, to take care of people, to stand up for what you believe in, even in ways that seem small. Sports statisticians keep track of assists for a reason. They matter.

What if you aren’t exceptional, and you’re just a kid? How do you make a difference? How do you find your place in the landscape of people trying to change the world?

These themes appear in my novels all the time. The Rock and the River is set in 1968 Chicago, about the thirteen-year-old son of a civil rights activist, whose older brother joins the Black Panther Party. Contemporary teens that I speak to about the book are often shocked to learn that the majority of civil rights activists were teens and college students. They can tell me all about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech, but they haven’t been taught that the true power of that moment was not just in the words he spoke. It was the visual impact of hundreds of thousands of people converging on the National Mall to stand up for equal rights. The camera has consistently been turned in the wrong direction.

X: A Novel, which I co-wrote with Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, brings a new perspective to the teenage years of civil rights leader Malcolm X. From our place in history, it is easy to look back and call Malcolm’s life exceptional. We have the benefit of hindsight. Malcolm himself, as he was living it, only knew the confusion and pain of being a young black man living under segregation. He had no idea what he would become, no idea of the full scope of his potential — and the ache of disappointment and self-doubt almost made him give up on everything. It was only when he decided to begin making small, positive changes in his life that the world of possibilities opened to him. Who’s to say many of the disillusioned young teens we encounter every day don’t have similar potential within them? How can we inspire them to believe?

My upcoming novel The Season of Styx Malone is entirely about how far a young boy will go in an effort to prove that he’s not ordinary. (Spoiler alert: pretty far.) My Robin Hood retelling, the Robyn Hoodlum series, is about social-justice activism, but the lesson Robyn learns is how to use her own skills in concert with other people’s to really have an impact. She does not have to stand alone and fix the world. In fact, she can’t. It’s all about standing together. Perhaps in my writing I continue to grapple with the feeling that what I can do is too small; with the question of whether my work, my life, really makes any difference in the world.

I don’t know if the history books will remember me. I don’t know if libraries will shelve my books for the next hundred years like they will Toni Morrison’s, Langston Hughes’s, James Baldwin’s, or Zora Neale Hurston’s. In an occasional, fleeting moment, I can imagine myself among their ranks, but there are many more moments in which they loom so large that the whole of me disappears beneath their shadows. Is that any reason to stop writing?

I don’t know if the history books will remember me, but I do know that on one spring afternoon in Indiana, I made a difference in the lives of a handful of black children. They touched my skin and saw for themselves a possibility that they’d never seen before. Maybe some of them held onto that vision, went home, and wrote a story. (I still get emails from a boy named Daniel who was there that day.)

When we teach, we make a difference. When we share our truth, we make a difference. When we show up to fight, even as one face among many in the crowd, we make a difference. A drop in the bucket is only a drop. But many drops in a bucket can quench a thirst, cleanse a surface, douse a fire. A drop in the bucket is powerful because of what it is part of. We can all be part of something bigger.

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference. For more, see the companion piece “From the Guide: Be an Everyday Un-Hero” from the same issue.

Kekla Magoon About Kekla Magoon

Kekla Magoon's YA novels include The Rock and the River (Simon), How It Went Down (Holt), X: A Novel (with Ilyasah Shabazz; Candlewick), and the Robyn Hoodlum Adventures series (Bloomsbury). She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now serves on the faculty.

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Comments

  1. Nancy K says:

    I teared up when I read this. I hope your books will be in every library, and especially every SCHOOL library, for a hundred years

  2. Thanks for this, Kekla. A lot of wisdom here. Here’s to being a “grain of sand” that with many, many others becomes a mountain.

  3. Thank you so much for this honest and generous piece that’s coming to me at the perfect time. I have these same doubts and thoughts. A good reminder that it’s the journey that is heroic and that it requires we take those first steps.

  4. Ave Maria Cross says:

    I am an African American female who writes plays for children and kidlit. You are an inspiration. You have brought tears to my eyes.

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