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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist: THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE by Kekla Magoon

SeasonStyxMaloneFrom the opening pages of THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE we are immediately captured by our main characters Caleb and Bobby Gene. Trading their baby sister for a bag of fireworks? It’s hilarious, it sets up our characters personalities instantly and it also highlights Kekla Magoon’s brilliance at character development. From this small moment early on, we are given a glimpse into the eagerness and naivety, setting them perfectly for a wild ride with Styx Malone.

 Styx Malone is an engaging and layered character himself. Styx finds people he can be in charge of and possibly even manipulate into his plans. He’s such an interesting older teen that Caleb and Bobby Gene are drawn to him from their first meeting. Styx makes things more exciting. Yet we know as readers that Styx is hiding something, or at least we suspect. And we uncover those layers of what makes Styx Styx as Bobby Gene and Caleb start peeling away the mask as well.

Caleb is enthralled by Styx and takes everything he says at face value. Of course Styx is awesome and his plan will work! Bobby Gene is starting to grow up a bit, so he’s starting to become more cautious and we find him tiptoeing around the truth at times. He wants to believe in the Great Escalator Trade, but he has his doubts. Caleb on the other hand is all in. Through these two boys and their interactions with Styx, we see a well-written look into tweens. In Caleb and Bobby Gene we see the delicate balance of growing up and the growing pains that come with it. Yet, Magoon never bogs the story down in sadness or despair. As Bobby Gene starts to feel as though he’s uncovering more of Styx’s story and background, it never feels sad, but instead honest and as though childhood innocence is slowly fading away.

As a coming of age story, THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE excels in character development and capturing that strange time in life between childhood and adulthood. Caleb finally understanding what his father means by extraordinary is such a big moment for Caleb and you can feel him grow in that moment.

THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE an excellent example of a beautiful and tender coming of age story that is funny and smart with memorable characters.

Introduction by Sarah

Readers are now invited to discuss this book in the comments below. We’ll focus on positive aspects initially; any time after 12:00 noon (EST) the discussion can broaden to include concerns and weaknesses as well as the strengths.

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Going into this, STYX was in my top three. I found it completely enjoyable. I standby my tagline, THE GREAT BRAIN meets MANIAC MAGEE. If there is one thing I like its a caper story. One that begins with a trade with a known jerk for a baby sister and you’ve got my attention. I laughed out loud many times, but appreciated the underlying depth of what was being shown with Styx’s situation. Magoon masterfully wove in the tension, without pointing a giant red arrow at it. One of the most impactful elements was the father’s fear for how the broader world will treat his black boys. It is never said, but deftly shown.

    Let me tell you why I find this book particularly important. It may, or may not, have anything to do with criteria beyond being distinctive for this time. I’m collaborating on a project to present diverse books at a couple upcoming state conferences. We are pulling our titles. Just a couple of days ago one of my colleges sent out a message that reading so many sad books was getting her down and she wasn’t sure how many more she had in her. My unwritten response was confusion. My list included STYX, MERCI SUAREZ, FRONT DESK, PRINCE AND THE DRESSMAKER, JULIAN IS A MERMAID. All books in which I found tremendous joy and hope. But I did stop to wonder, are we just now getting to a point where diverse books don’t need to be about heavy, extremely sad themes? I hope in a few years there will be so many stories about kids that look like Caleb, Merci and Mia that when the sad, heavy stories — as important as they can be — come along they will not be the only representation.

    Also, best cover of the year.

  2. Courtney Hague says:

    Yes! This book is pure joy and summer fun with a serious undercurrent that still leads to a satisfying and hopeful ending. I will admit that when I started this book I sort of drug my feet a bit about reading it. It didn’t feel like the right time of year; this is such a summer book. However, I pushed through and finished the book absolutely head over heels for this book.

    I loved that Caleb’s narration is heavily influenced by his awe of Styx. As readers we have to take in the little clues as to the true nature of their adventures and Styx himself. Sometimes it’s Bobby Gene’s commentary and sometimes it’s just the way that Styx says something. I wonder if a child reader might be a little more surprised in the end with the way Styx acts.

    And all the characters from Caleb and Styx to Bobby Gene and Cory are well drawn. They felt very real to me. And I loved how Caleb and Bobby Gene’s parents were portrayed as good parents with realistic flaws.

    I will also put in a mention that I am from Indiana originally so the setting was a definite highlight for me. It felt a lot like my childhood memories (which is probably because Kekla Magoon is from my hometown!)

  3. I loved the fun of this book. I may have side-eyed the idea that not one, not two, but three middle-school aged boys would fully believe they could trade a child for fireworks and that there would be no repercussions, but I also could see the humor (though here is where being own voices is key: I’d have been much more upset at a Black child being “sold” from a white author).

    My favorite part of this book was the relationship between Caleb and Bobby Gene. They got on each other’s nerves, but generally functioned as a team throughout the book. Maybe I just read the wrong books, but I feel like I see a lot more books that showcase sibling rivalry as the main focus of the relationship, whereas most of the real-life siblings I know enjoy each other’s company (except, of course, when they don’t.) Caleb and Bobby Gene are very different, and there is a tension in their relationship, but it’s also clearly loving and supportive. That’s a difficult line to walk, and I thought it was very well done.

    It’s not Newbery criteria, but I also really liked that Cory loves babies and isn’t afraid to go all-in on his delight. We need to see more role models of men/boys who love babies. In real life most of the boys I know adore babies and they rarely get to see themselves reflected.

  4. samuel leopold says:

    It was a member of my Student Newbery group at school who pointed out DaNae’s point about how many of our contenders this year are fun and mostly about enjoyable moments in a character’s life. Refreshing…..

    A story does not have to make you cry to be memorable and distinguished.

    And Styx Malone makes us smile an awful lot.

    I easily check off all the criteria boxes for this book.
    The excellent distinguished aspect of character development in this novel can stand up against any title on our list.

  5. Deborah Ford says:

    I, too, took my sweet time taking this book off my pile. I’d heard that Styx was 16, so with a current focus of PreK-6, I was saving it for later. Then, like many of you, I kept hearing about it. After the first chapter, I was all in. Love the humor that softens the hard edges–like Styx being foster care at his age and when he loses “his sister.” The path between black and white situations widens as the boys step further into the gray–knowing that mom probably wouldn’t approve. Cory loving the little ones also adds to the humor. And the fact that the boys are willing to take chances just to go to a museum. (Of course if you’ve ever been, you get that.)

    And then there’s Mr. Pike. Our gruffy-you-should-have-just-asked-me guy. (Get out the tissues; the book deserves 2 for ending) Love. Love.

    Questions: Why is dad so set on never leaving town? Did something happen that makes him so overprotective? “until you understand what the world is really like, I want you close.” pg 279 I love that he listens to his kids and you see the result in the end. So many books for this age group have terrible adults. It’s a nice change.

  6. samuel leopold says:

    I think I will be fighting for this one when we start our balloting next week.

  7. I so enjoyed this book. It felt familiar and warm and sweet and full of heart and it reminded me of The Penderwicks – a bit old fashioned, and shamelessly so. I can’t remember the last time I felt giddy while reading a book, but this book tickled all my sweet spots: it reminded me of the carefree moments in my childhood, running with kids my parents didn’t necessarily approve of, and going on adventures that could’ve landed me in serious trouble.

    I loved, too, that this book wasn’t angsty. Yes, it addressed some extremely timely topics, but it did so in a nuanced way. This was more a book about an unlikely friendship and the desire to find your place in the world, even if that world is dangerous.

    The only thing that didn’t work for me was the accident Styx was in – it felt a little bit contrived, like a plot point in an 80s movie that’s designed to teach A Super Big Lesson. A little convenient and a little bit trite.

    But. That’s really my only quibble. This is a sweet, fun book that will capture the imaginations of many children.

    • And was I the only one who thought the accident was oddly described? Metal twisted all around Styx, paramedics needing to carefully pry him out of the twisted metal? I mean, not what I was picturing with a moped. The scene described may it sound more like a car accident than a moped accident, but maybe I missed something.

      • Yes. Agree that the moped accident was confusingly described and ‘after school special’ lesson- seeming.

      • And maybe I’m a pessimist, but I don’t think, based purely on the description (mangled scooter and limbs) that Styx would’ve survived that accident.

      • I agree that in “the real world” he likely wouldn’t have survived. But I also think that it’s been established that this isn’t that type of book. Kids happily hand over a sister without even once thinking there’s be consequences. They hop a train and it’s scary but not THAT scary. The general tone meant that I knew he was going to be okay, and I accepted that.

    • samuel leopold says:

      Joe….I agree completely. The moped accident description seemed a bit far-fetched……but everything else about this book is distinguished in my opinion.

  8. Last year when HELLO UNIVERSE won I was like, “In retrospect, that makes total sense – it featured a diverse cast of protagonists, it was an interesting adventure, it would be a book that you could form consensus around even if it wasn’t a book that I felt strongly about.” I think Mr. H really liked it (maybe?) but we didn’t spend a ton of time talking about it here. I feel like that about STYX a little bit, too. I liked it just fine but the charming things you all point out and the emphasis on Black Joy do seem like it could be a book that people like enough to support and that would be a good thing to see.

    • For me, this is a book that I end up liking more and more as I read the discussion surrounding it. While I was reading the book, I enjoyed it, but wasn’t immediately drawn in. I felt the same was about HELLO UNIVERSE. Makes me wonder what I’m missing as I’m reading books that seem to be so universally loved and books that tick all my boxes for what constitutes a good book.

    • I did like HELLO, UNIVERSE… Good memory Kari!

  9. Jessica Lee says:

    I thought that STYX was a solid book. It told an enjoyable story with likable characters with a lot of humor and love. But I don’t think it quite rises to the level of distinguished. There is little about it that stands out. I feel like a Newbery winner should be particularly distinct, not just a good read. This is one of several of the realistic fiction books we read this year that is quite good, but doesn’t stand apart from the others.

  10. One problem I had is how would such an over-protective family let their boys hang out with a 16 year-old? Any 16 year-old let alone a lying troubled shyster new to the local foster home. I really don’t think the dad would ever go for that.

    • Seriously! I thought it was super weird that no one was worried about that or even surprised by it (including the kids!). 16 is just soo much older. If he’d been 13 it would have all made a lot more sense (or even the exact same age as them but just more worldly). I kept thinking he was lying about being 16 and was just going to ride the moped without a license.

  11. I liked it fine, but didn’t love it like I was expecting to. Partially maybe everyone else loving it gave me too high of expectations, but also the book itself hypes itself. It keeps talking about how this was this one crazy summer when everything happened. But then not all that much happens. I was just expecting more adventures and more over the top. I mean, hopping a train is plenty of adventure in real life, I suppose, but seemed pretty tame for book life. So most of the book was kind of slow for me. Although I agree with those who thought the accident was over the top in a bad way, it’s also where it finally got exciting and interesting for me–the aftermath, not the accident itself so much. I liked that it showed the foster care system not working out of incompetence rather than malice and everything eventually working out.

    I liked the writing and the characters, although I kept forgetting which brother was older–often the older one seemed younger which confused me. The Dad was particularly interesting and complex and I loved Pixie. I liked the timeless magical summer thing. And I really liked that it’s a black book that’s not an Issue Book and that the bits of issues that are there are put in so subtly. I kept expecting there to be a big talk at some point from the Dad explaining why he’s afraid of them going to the city, but there wasn’t, which I liked. I thought it was really effective that that plot line could work in different ways for readers from different backgrounds. You could connect with it one way if you’re black and another if you’re not but your parents are overprotective because they’re religious or just scared of cities, etc.

    I thought it was kind of weird he was so obsessed with getting out of town one day when he’s only 10. I feel like it’d make more sense if he wanted to do something to be special now, not far off in the future in a really vague way. And I thought for sure the adventures with Styx would land them in the paper or something to give him some fame/specialness currently. I thought the tension between his dad wanting to be ordinary and the kid wanting to be special worked pretty well (although I got annoyed by him talking about it so much), but I didn’t buy the whole extra ordinary thing. He seemed way too old to not understand that his Dad was saying “extraordinary.” That seems like a 5 year old kind of thing, not a 10 year old thing. And they don’t even sound alike, so I was really confused because it seemed to only work visually (until they finally revealed at the end that the Dad says it as two words).

    • The “extraordinary” thing bothered me too. It just seemed like a really weak narration device. And agree that it was tiresome to hear the main character repeatedly say (rather than show) he wished to be special.

  12. I really wanted to LOVE this one… but I just merely LIKED it. I thought the Franklins were great characters but somewhat one-dimensional (Caleb = awestruck, wants to get out of town, Bobby Gene = voice of reason) but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I actually liked the parents’ reaction to Styx. I agree, at 16 years old, I found this a bit hard to believe at first, but as the story played out I found it very believable. They have developed a soft-spot for Styx while remaining leery of him and his influence on their boys.

    I thought the Escalator Trade was a great concept but the sequence of events that made up the plot of this story were a bit jumbled. Styx was such a smooth talker that I was fully expecting him to have completely thought out the Escalator Trade from beginning to end (he surely made the boys believe he had a Big Master Plan and the author even foreshadowed this some). But in the end, Styx has NO plan. Caleb is the one who has the idea that pulls off the trade and it’s purely by luck that he does (I forget the name of the character they traded their sister to, but his uncle’s memorabilia doesn’t really even present itself in the story until LONG after Styx has dreamt up this plan.)

    And this has NOTHING to do with the Newbery but I’d like to throw it out there… Styx has very little in common with Jeffrey Lionel Magee. Jeffrey is a legend because of all the feats he pulled off in Two Mills (frog ball home run, Finsterwald’s house, Cobble’s knot, and most importantly, bringing together the baddest of two racially separated parts of town). Styx inspires Caleb to dream of life outside of his town (which struck me as strange coming from a 10 year old) and in the end, relies on Caleb to pull off the Escalator Trade and then steal the moped from the boys and crash it. I think Magoon had some Maniac Magee inspiration as the story began, but it morphed into something entirely different.

    As others have said, I enjoyed this book. I may even choose it as a read aloud this year in class because I think kids will like it a lot. But it doesn’t rise above other titles I feel more strongly about.

  13. samuel leopold says:

    Mr.H,
    I say this out of deepest respect —-your analysis is always complex and impressive—-….I disagree with your overall analysis of Styx. I see it as one of the five best books on our list. Maybe if this book is still on the table after the first ballot, we can discuss this further. Thanks for your quality input.

    • I’m highly curious Sam, as I respect your comments and analysis as well! Like Kari mentioned below, I was hoping we’d dig a little deeper into this one because there is so much LOVE for it out there.

  14. Of all the books we discussed, I feel like this is the one we may have not dug into enough. It was nice in a way that might not have stirred up the strongest feelings. That was true for me for sure. I liked it but didn’t love it – but enjoyed hearing people who loved it tell me why they thought it was great.

    I am interested to see what the ballot looks like in the morning, but I am also starting to feel like
    It might be a big winner next week because it was solid and had such a heart.

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