Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Wednesday February 7, 2024: Kids' Maximum Shelf: The Imaginary Alphabet

Candlewick Press (MA): The Secret Library by Kekla Magoon

Candlewick Press (MA): The Secret Library by Kekla Magoon

Candlewick Press (MA): The Secret Library by Kekla Magoon

Candlewick Press (MA): Blue Stars: Mission One: The Vice Principal Problem: A Graphic Novel (The Blue Stars) by Kekla Magoon and Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Molly Murakami

The Secret Library

by Kekla Magoon

National Book Award finalist and five-time Coretta Scott King Award winner/honoree Kekla Magoon takes a deep dive into identity, family, Black history, and social justice with profound grace and sensitivity in The Secret Library, a gripping time-travel fantasy adventure.

Eleven-year-old Dally, daughter of a white mother and a Black father who died years ago, is being prepared by her mother to take over the family business. She is allowed almost no free time, and must schedule formal meetings with her "cool and confident" mother to request special privileges like joining the Adventure Club at school (she is denied). The death of her beloved grandpa leaves Dally with neither ally nor friend, as her classmates think her "strange," probably because of her creative mind and her rigid after-school schedule of business tutoring. When her mother insists on waiting until Dally is "of age" before giving her the envelope her grandfather left her, Dally rebels and breaks into the family safe to find the letter. In the envelope is a final letter from her grandfather and a mysterious hand-drawn map, which Dally promptly begins to decipher. The map's endpoint starkly reinforces her grandfather's last written words: "the past is prologue."

Dally is directed to a secret library, but, as the sign on the door clarifies, it's a secret library, not a secret library: "A library of secrets. You can even check them out, at your own peril." Here, patrons may peruse the stacks until they find a book that draws them in. After Dally selects a book containing an interesting secret, the librarian, charmingly named Jennacake, escorts her to the reading room, where the bewildered and curious child takes her first of many journeys, "travel[ing] to the moment when the secret occurred, or a moment when it was revealed or shared." She is hooked after the first book, and makes plans to sneak to the library every day. Unfortunately, Dally's daily life is so tightly circumscribed and monitored, her time to explore is severely limited. This leads to strife with her mother and the necessity to be sneaky. However, with (unknowing) help from Mr. Jerry, the family chauffeur, and a clandestine route through a bakery, Dally manages.

Dally's early explorations of family secrets are tame--discoveries of little white lies, and the housekeeper's hiding places for treats. She digs deeper, though, and finds herself embroiled in more personal and complicated times of "legal segregation, open prejudice, and structural barriers for people of color." She witnesses her parents' meeting, which is charged in ways that stun their future daughter. She flies a kite with her father before she's born and sees a tender, vulnerable side of her mother at a barbecue. Time travel as a Black or biracial person is potentially loaded with minefields, but for the most part Magoon places Dally in situations where she is able to participate and observe without being traumatized. She lands on a pirate ship with a white captain and Black first mate who interact with unspoken intimacy. She helps enslaved people escape via the Underground Railroad in her own South Carolina town. And she meets members of her family whose perceptions of race challenge and chill her to the core.

Throughout her travels, Dally begins to understand herself better, as well as the ways in which her ancestors' experiences have shaped her life. Her 21st-century sensibilities and values come up against historic attitudes about race, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Whenever Dally prepares to travel further back in time, Jennacake takes her to the "closet to end all closets, a veritable library-within-a-library of clothing and accessories" for a "wardrobe change" into more historically appropriate garb. The Dally of today, who understands that "gender [is] a social construct" and that people can love people regardless of gender, must quickly adjust to times and places in which gender roles are firmly set. Similarly, she witnesses all the ways that "the painful layers of racism ran deep." Learning that her loved ones were not the one-note people she thought they were gives her profound insight into their life choices.

In The Secret Library, Kekla Magoon (Revolution in Our Time; X: A Novel) tackles multiple complex and nuanced themes with tremendous empathy and perceptiveness. She reminds readers that every moment of their lives exists in context with the past and is setting context for the future--heady but important and relevant concepts for middle-grade readers. Dally's family is so jam-packed with generational secrets, it could (and ultimately does) take a lifetime to begin to disentangle them all. Magoon navigates the twisting threads with great care, slowly re-braiding them into a family narrative that is both shocking and socio-historically authentic--not to mention tender, funny, sad, and mind-bending. --Emilie Coulter

Candlewick Press, $18.99, hardcover, 384p., ages 8-13, 9781536230888, May 7, 2024

Candlewick Press (MA): X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon; Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party's Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon

Kekla Magoon: The Drumbeat Under the Music of Everything I Do

Kekla Magoon
(photo: Alice Dodge)

Kekla Magoon is highly attuned to the imaginations and feelings of middle-grade and young adult readers, as evidenced by her dozen-plus books. She is the recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award, four Coretta Scott King Honors, and the John Steptoe Award for New Talent, among others. The Secret Library (Candlewick Press, May 7) is her first time-travel novel. Shelf Awareness talked with her about secrets, spreadsheets, and the best way to research a story about pirates.

What was your impetus for writing about a library of secrets?

The idea for The Secret Library was sparked over a decade ago by a line in the bio of a fellow children's writer, Holly Black, which said that she lives in a house with a secret library. Hers was the sort of library that is secret because its door is hidden behind a bookcase, but somehow when my mind read that phrase, I thought, "What if it wasn't a secret LIBRARY, but a SECRET library, a library of secrets?" The idea has teased me ever since, but a novel requires more than one idea to come to fruition, so it took me a while to figure out the larger story behind the concept.

How did jumping in and out of history allow you to explore the realities of the times, as opposed to using traditional historical fiction?

There's some freedom in time travel, to offer brief glimpses of harsh realities without becoming mired in them. Time travel can be challenging for Black characters because the pure fun of traveling into a different time is marred by the reality that Black people have been treated very badly throughout U.S. history. Dally witnesses enslavement, segregation, and other painful aspects of history, and I wanted to reflect those realities without having the novel centered in a place of suffering and discrimination. Striking that balance was difficult at times, but it remained important to me throughout the writing process.

Dally travels back to various eras of "legal segregation, open prejudice, and structural barriers for people of color" (not to mention women and LGBTQ+ people). What role does children's and YA literature play in changing social norms?

Books for children promote empathy at an early age, which is vital for nurturing a population of humans who will be thoughtful, accepting, open-minded, and interested in the well-being of all different people. Children do not enter the world with bias and prejudice--they are taught to think in those ways, and they can just as easily be taught to think inclusively. I don't know if books directly change social norms, but they do have the power to introduce many different viewpoints and ideas to readers, who must then make their own decisions about what to believe and value and how to act toward other humans. When we deprive children of diverse books, we limit their ability to think critically and make their own choices about how to be world citizens. Access to children's and YA literature gives young people many tools for transforming social norms and making our communities stronger.

Why was it important to you to include characters who are so complex and nuanced? No bad guys, no good guys here.

People are flawed, and their actions stem from various motivations, which sometimes lead to taking good actions and sometimes lead to taking negative ones. Not to mention the times when it's not clear which is which, or when shades of both are present! We are not monoliths, we are imperfect, and the characters we enjoy on the page should reflect that.

How did your own sense of identity, now and as a child, shape the story you wrote about Dally?

Identity feels to me like something a person is always building, always trying to understand and get a handle on. Who am I really? How do I fit in the world? These questions feel like the drumbeat under the music of everything I do in life. My sense of identity is always growing, changing, evolving. Identity struggles were a huge part of my early teen years. I never felt like I fit in among my peers at a young age, but at the same time I felt this underlying confidence that there was something out there, somewhere, for me, and that I'd find it in time. (Spoiler alert: that thing was writing novels. I found it!) For Dally, that thing is the Secret Library. Being a secret traveler brings her a sense of identity and satisfaction and completion that definitely parallels how I felt when I figured out what I was supposed to be doing with my life.

The Secret Library has such a breadth of history and social/cultural issues. What was your research process for the book? 

I write about race, identity, Black history, and social justice in various forms and genres, so I drew on past research as much as doing new studies. One thing I specifically researched was period clothing--Dally is a time traveler, and the library helps dress her appropriately for her adventures. Also, a big portion of the novel takes place on a pirate ship in 1850, so I researched pirate culture and learned a lot about sailing ships and smugglers ports. My favorite hands-on part of the research was taking a sailing lesson--I wanted to feel the ropes in my hands and the wind in my hair like Dally does, as well as to learn some basic sailing terminology and practices.

How on earth did you keep track of the people, times, and places that Dally visits as you were writing?

Spreadsheets! Post-it notes! Big rolls of paper! Story structure is challenging for me in the best of circumstances, even when I'm writing a linear narrative. I can't usually hold the storylines, character arcs, and timelines all in my head or even process them on a screen. I like to look at the whole project at once and be able to physically move things around. For this book, there were two timelines: the actual historical timeline of what happened chronologically and the timeline of the book, which presents things in the order that Dally experiences them. While writing, I created a large poster full of Post-it notes, color-coded by storyline, where each scene in the book was represented by a Post-it note. I moved them around as I added new scenes and created the plot. Later, my editor, Andrea Tompa, made me a very helpful chapter-by-chapter document that tracked the time jumping clearly. We relied on that a lot!

What are you working on now?

I always have several irons in the fire, so to speak, and I love to challenge myself to try new formats and genres. The files that are open on my computer this week relate to three main projects: a collaborative nonfiction book about Black history, a joyful new chapter book series about a pair of clever and mischievous cats, and the script for the next book in the graphic novel series I'm co-writing with Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Molly Murakami (the Blue Stars series debuts in March 2024). In the back of my mind, I'm tossing around ideas for a companion novel to The Secret Library, because the world of the library is so rich, and I'd like to spend more time there, with Dally and with other characters. --Emilie Coulter

Powered by: Xtenit