The Season of Styx Malone: Kekla Magoon's 2019 BGHB Fiction and Poetry Award Speech

A few years back, a friend and I went into a frozen yogurt shop — you know, one of those places where they give you a big bowl and you fill it with whatever flavors and toppings you want, and then they weigh the monstrosity you’ve created and charge you fifteen bucks. 

This was in Raleigh, North Carolina, on a weekday afternoon in early spring. No one else was in the place. We got our frozen yogurt, and the very chatty teenage clerk rang us up. We went to sit in a booth, and the kid followed us. It was awkward, because we had clearly passed the moment when the employee should stop talking to the customers and let them enjoy their yogurt in peace. But he literally sat down in the booth with us and did not stop talking. To make a long story short, he ended up telling us a tale that had become a legend within his family — about this time that his uncles, as children, had traded their baby sister to a neighbor kid for a huge bag of peanuts. My friend, who is more of an extrovert than I am, laughed and said, “Be careful what you tell my friend here. She’s an author. Your story might end up in a book,” which he thought was really cool. “Yeah, yeah, put it in a book!” In the moment, I was merely annoyed with him for being intrusive, so I just mumbled something like, “You never know,” having no intention of ever thinking of that moment again. 

Sometime long before that day in the yogurt shop, so long ago that I actually don’t remember exactly when, I heard a story that at the time I thought was an urban legend, about a man who turned a paper clip into a mansion by trading things of approximately equal but slightly more value. He traded the paper clip for a ballpoint pen, the pen for a pair of scissors, the scissors for a doorknob, and on and on until he was able to trade a yacht for a mansion. Well, it turns out that there is a Canadian guy named Kyle MacDonald who actually did this via internet trades, and he wrote a book about it called One Red Paperclip. Of course, the true story turned out to be a lot less sensational than the urban legend I’d heard…but still, I loved the concept. 

[Read Horn Book reviews of the 2019 BGHB Fiction and Poetry winners.]

If you’ve read The Season of Styx Malone, you know why I’m telling these stories. The idea of boys trading their baby sister for something more appealing; and the idea of what I started to call an “escalator trade,” trading things of approximately equal value until you get something you desire. These two core ideas somehow twisted around each other in my mind. Maybe because they both involve a trade? I really don’t know; but when Styx Malone came sauntering out of the woods of my imagination, the pieces of the story began to fall into place. 

The novel begins when ten-year-old Caleb decides he doesn’t want to be ordinary, he wants to be…the other thing. But he doesn’t know what that is. Caleb and his family live in a small town in Indiana. His dad watches a lot of politics on TV and is forever griping about how ordinary folks want this, and ordinary folks need that, and Caleb gleans enough from this to wonder what it would be like to be something other than ordinary. His dad inadvertently makes matters worse when he tells Caleb he’s not ordinary, but “extra-ordinary,” and Caleb misunderstands. He thinks his dad is telling him he’s the most boring, most ordinary human in existence, and he’s devastated. Naturally his efforts to prove himself go quite awry — in a misguided effort to gain social standing among his peers, he indeed attempts to trade away his baby sister. As Caleb and his brother try to clean up the subsequent mess, they meet Styx Malone, their very cool, very worldly sixteen-year-old neighbor. Styx knows everything. He’s seen the world. He’s been all the way to Indianapolis. Styx has seemingly endless something-for-nothing schemes, and he introduces the boys to the great escalator-trade concept. Their adventures begin. 

I started out these remarks by sharing those two origin stories with you because readers love to ask writers: “Where do you get your ideas?” or “What’s your inspiration?” Children especially. One of my school-visit talks is completely structured around answering this question, and I still often get raised hands at the end wondering what gave me the idea for a certain book. But it’s very hard to pin down all the factors that lead to one story. It’s never just one idea; it’s multiple ideas colliding in interesting ways. Would The Season of Styx Malone exist if I hadn’t stopped for frozen yogurt that day? Or if I’d never heard the paper clip story? Or if the word extraordinary was spelled a little bit differently? Who knows? 

Where do you get your ideas? I understand this question from readers, because it’s pretty mysterious—how a collection of otherwise ordinary words can be shaped into a narrative that makes you laugh, or sob, or that transports you to an entirely different world. There is so much wonder in the reading experience — it’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact that there is just as much wonder in the experience of writing. It’s dazzling to imagine someone sitting down and generating all of that magic, with words flowing and a clear vision for the story they’re bringing to life. But the truth is, I don’t always show up at the blank page brimming with ideas and inspiration. Sometimes I sit down at my desk and start typing, just to see what happens. 

By the time a book is in print, of course, just about everything that’s on the page is fully intentional. I’ve considered and re-considered nearly every word. My editor, Wendy Lamb, has considered and re-considered every word along with me, as has a copyeditor, a proofreader, and several other support readers. Our combined efforts are what make the book rise from ordinary to extraordinary. But no one wants to hear about that painstaking revision and editing process. They want to hear about the ideas, the inspiration, that initial spark that captured my imagination and carried me away. 

We’re drawn to things that spark. We’re drawn to things that are unique or special, things that seem out of the ordinary. We want to believe that books are created by magic, and that those who create them are somehow extraordinary. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to be thought of as extraordinary. I certainly have enough self-esteem to accept this award with grace and go home believing that this particular book was indeed a bit more special or powerful than the average book. I feel gratitude for the judges who selected Styx Malone, and for The Boston Globe and The Horn Book for providing the awards. I’m thrilled to embrace these trappings of excellence, and at the same time I stand here knowing that this book didn’t happen by magic. It happened because I showed up at the computer day after day to tell my story. The particular combination of luck and fate and creative observation that led to the creation of Styx Malone would have gone nowhere if I didn’t have the discipline to show up to write every day. 

I tell you this not to diminish the meaning or worth of an exceptional novel, but simply to remind all of us that what is extraordinary is merely an extension of what is ordinary. Making an extraordinary book is the result of thousands of extremely ordinary moments. No one writes a whole novel at one sitting. You write a word or two, a sentence or two, a page or two. I meet so many writers of all ages who get discouraged from pressing forward with their stories because they feel like they can’t write enough. But every little bit adds up. Every ordinary sentence is a building block for a possibly extraordinary story. 

We all have the potential to be extraordinary. The things we want and the things we dream about doing are often more accessible than we think they are. If we all stopped writing every time we feel like our words aren’t good enough, we’d have very few books in the world at all! If we stop ourselves from dreaming because those dreams seem out of reach, we will never know what might have been possible. 

In some ways Caleb has the right idea. He doesn’t give up on himself; instead he asks: what do I have to do to become more than ordinary? I wish for all my readers the ability to see themselves as special enough to reach for big things, to take small steps in the direction of changing their world for the better, whatever that means for each reader. For Caleb, of course, The Season of Styx Malone is about exactly this — recognizing the things that are special about himself already, and learning what the word extraordinary really means. At first he thinks the answer is “Be like Styx Malone,” but he’s wrong. 

What do you have to do to be more than ordinary? Keep being you.

From the January/February 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2019 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB19. Read more from The Horn Book by Kekla Magoon.

Kekla Magoon
Kekla Magoon

Kekla Magoon is the winner of the 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry for The Season of Styx Malone (Lamb/Random). Her 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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