This book. Oh, this book. How much do I love you?
The Season of Styx Malone is not out for a couple of months yet, but I just had to write something so that you all get it on your radar. I knew Kekla Magoon from her other work, say such hard hitting urban YA works as How It Went Down, a delightful futuristic reworking of Robin Hood, and X: A Novel, her collaboration with Illyasah Shabazz which I adored, adored, adored. And now this — one of the most delightful middle grade books I have read in some time.
The black Franklin boys, 10 year old Caleb and 11 year old Bobby Gene, have spent uneventful lives in a small town outside of Indianapolis. It is a place where everyone knows each other, where children can roam without parental worry, and where the bigger world stays away. While Bobby Gene is relatively content, Caleb is not. He wants to see the world outside of Sutton, but that isn’t going to happen if his father has anything to say about it, refusing to sign permission forms for yearly field trips to the city’s Children’s Museum. When his father says he is extra ordinary, it infuriates Caleb; he wants to be more than ordinary not less. That it is the dangers for black boys out there that is behind this, a belief that staying under the radar is best, that it all comes from a paternal place of love and fierce desire to keep them safe, matters little to this boy yearning to break free.
And then a stranger comes to town. One Styx Malone, a sixteen year old foster child who gives them a summer to remember. They meet in the woods, not far from the boys’ home, where they are trying to figure out what to do with a bag of ill-gotten fireworks. (Won’t spoil how they got them other than to say it is hilarious.) Styx, exuding cool with an improbable candy cigarette dangling out of his mouth, convinces the boys that he can help them — mediate or parlay he says — to get rid of the loot for something better. And so begins the Great Escalator Trade in which they trade up and up and up to get the object of their dreams. The escapades and adventures are absolutely delightful, at times breathtaking, and all completely true to the circumstances of these characters and the book’s setting. That is, it all seems completely plausible. This is because Magoon has not only created a wonderful array of characters, nuanced and unique each of them, but she has placed them in a superbly constructed world. There is a timeless quality to the boys’ lives that makes one understand why their father is trying so hard to keep them so penned in, yet Caleb’s yearning is so beautifully rendered along the way that it makes for a contemporary feel as well.
In addition to superb character development, elegant world building, and compelling plotting, Magoon is outstanding at sentence level writing. I was too busy reading to stop and mark favorites, so will reread to do so. Meanwhile, to give a taste, here are a few I picked out randomly:
Styx twirled the candy cigarette over his knuckles. “Your old lady’s really keeping the jam on you, eh?”
It didn’t occur to us to study his every move or wonder what he was hiding. How could he have been hiding anything? He was too busy showing us a whole new world.
The white of the sky and the chug of the train, the speed and the rocking and the grease scent tipped me toward giddy.
This is a book that leans toward happy while exploring deep themes that aren’t so happy. There are moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, others that will bring you to tears, and still more that will have you pondering. The Franklin family and Styx Malone will be staying in my heart for a long time. I hope they will do likewise in yours.