Monday, February 7, 2011

Reading Like a Writer: The Wisdom of Kekla Magoon

Ah, Black history month is here. While I think Black history should be celebrated all year long I am going to be focusing my Monday Reading Like a Writer essays on a few of my favorite books by authors of color that have come out in the last year or so. 

They are: Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon

The Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes,

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

and The Other Half of My Heart by Sundee T. Frazier.
All are middle grade, all range in style, tone, voice but yep, all have female protagonists. Perhaps this is girl power month for me, as well.  I may make comparisons between the books—or I may not—but what I will do is discuss scene construction, character and voice—my three favorite things to discuss.

Let’s start with Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon. Kekla’s first novel, the CSK Steptoe New Talent award winning novel, The Rock and the River is a historical novel set in Chicago in 1968. Camo Girl on the other hand is a contemporary middle grade set in the dry deserts outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. The tag line on the front of the novel, “Everyone has something to hide,” is intriguing. What does Ella have to hide? Don't you want to know?

As a friend, co-editor at Hunger Mountain, co-presenter of The Movement (a civil rights era themed school visit program Kekla and myself created), and former critique partner of Kekla’s I sure did.  I had read a few early chapters of Camo Girl before moving to Austin but Kekla finished the book after I left NYC. Once I got my hands on the ARC—now the full fledged fully released book—I read with fervor. 

Style-wise, what Kekla does and does so well is convey character with a deft hand. Her writing is concise, fluid, and always provides the reader with a wise kind of knowingness about the human condition. That wisdom is one of the things I love best about my friend, and is one of the things I love best about Ella, the MC of Camo Girl.

Take this moment, near the middle of the novel, where Ella and Bailey (a new student in school, and one who is black—like Ella) are playing basketball.

            “…Bailey catches the ball, holds it. ‘I don’t like to talk about my dad,’ he says.
            ‘Me either,’ I whisper.
For a long moment we rest there, locked in something silent but strong, held fast by whatever sadness is hanging over us. I don’t know about his dad, and he doesn’t know about mine, but there’s a second where it’s like we do know. The line we draw around ourselves sort of breaks open. For a moment, we are a figure eight. Everything else is outside, and it’s just us. In.”

Camo Girl is full of moments like that. Moments that are story driven but make us feel something as a reader—yes, we feel for Ella, we feel for her friend Zachary who calls himself Zacharia and escapes into a fantasy land of knights and fair ladies, we care for Bailey—who is almost too cool for school, but what Kekla Magoon does and does so well is she makes us care about ourselves, whether we be a middle grade reader, a teacher, a librarian, or a friend who is also a fan. For a moment, standing there with Bailey and Ella, “Everything is outside, and it’s just us. In.”

Wise, wise, wise.

1 comment:

  1. I read Camo Girl, and highly recommend it! The writing is lyrical, and the book has real heart.