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By Kekla Magoon
“What’s your inspiration?” is a question that most authors I know get asked a lot—by friends, by child readers, by fellow writers.
Like most authors (I suspect), I’ve developed semi-canned answers to this question—answers which are based on truth, but which always leave me feeling a bit squirmy. I never can get to the bottom of something as unwieldy as my inspiration in a sound bite.
It never fails to intrigue me, how interested people are in this question.
Whether or not they’ve actually read my work, it seems they’re dying to know, “What made you write about that?”
I learned to anticipate this question after my first novel was released. In The Rock and The River (Aladdin, 2009), thirteen-year-old Sam has to choose whether or not to join the Black Panther Party in 1968 Chicago.
The Black Panthers were a topic that hadn’t been written about for young people, so it made sense that people were constantly asking me how I chose the topic. It was also very easy to navigate my response by uttering variations of “It’s an interesting slice of history, and it hasn’t been written about.”
|See reviews of Rock and the River.
I was able to speak about the story as something that had captured my imagination as a young person, as a black person, as someone committed to conveying new truths about our collective history.
Basically, I thought I had a good handle on the inspiration question, but when my second novel came out, the bubble burst.
Camo Girl (Aladdin, 2011) is a contemporary middle grade novel about a pair of outcasts, Ella and Z, who experience bullying and isolation in sixth grade. Ella’s dream is to be popular, but Z is the “weird kid” in their class, and he’s unlikely to ever fit in with any group. A new popular boy in school, Bailey, befriends Ella and offers her a chance to make new friends, but to do so she would have to leave Z behind.
The story’s themes of friendship, loyalty, fitting in, and self-acceptance all rested very close to my heart, but when people asked why I wrote the book, I found myself hemming and hawing.
How was I going to talk about inspiration, when the inspiration was largely my own life and memories? The book is fictional, of course, and nothing that happens in the story actually happened to me, but I definitely attempted to capture an emotional truth about my middle school experience. Thus, any honest answers to the inspiration question veered a bit too close for comfort.
But I strive for authenticity in my work and in my professional life, and it struck me as disingenuous to obfuscate, or distance myself from the emotions of the project by declaring it “relevant subject matter for pre-teens,” or something lofty like that.
It became important to me to own the material, to say it was inspired by my middle school experiences.
And at heart, it was, although I maintain that an artist’s creativity can’t be so easily pigeonholed or attached to specific inspirations.
Yes, there was a mean boy who bullied me in middle school. Yes, I know how it feels to be left out of a group, or uncertain about which lunch table I will be welcome to sit at. Yes, I have frequently been the only black (biracial) person in a room, in a class, in a group. Many, many times.
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There’s so much raw material from my life that inspires me. Observations, memories, facts, games, books, movies, television, radio, snatches of conversation overheard (crafty writers develop a talent for eavesdropping), letters from readers, and so on.
Digging deeper than that, I honestly don’t know exactly what inspires me. I can’t always identify the source of that little tug that draws me to the keyboard. Sometimes, I think my true inspiration is hidden—it doesn’t push me to write based on the knowledge of some truth, but rather pulls me there with the hope of uncovering it.
Once a book is fully written, I find I have a better sense of the force that has driven me to write it, but I don’t become any better at articulating it succinctly. (If I could be succinct about it, I suppose I would write short stories or flash fiction rather than novels! I refer you to this blog post for further evidence of this phenomenon of verbosity.) I’ll do my best to sum it up, though.
In Camo Girl, I now understand that I wrote about the highest form of friendship I could imagine—unconditional friendship—because I craved it back then and I still value and search for it now. I wrote about fitting in, because I’m the sort of person who likes myself but is never really sure if anyone else does. And I wrote about self-acceptance because realizing that I like myself, regardless of whether anyone else does, has been a powerful and lifelong evolution that I suppose I’m still rolling through.
|More about Camo Girl from Indiebound.
Whew. I worked hard on getting comfortable sharing information like this with my readers. And I was well aware that child audiences might interpret these admissions about my past experience differently than adults do.
When I went to prepare my first school presentations on Camo Girl, I panicked. How would I articulate the difference between truth and fiction to middle school audiences who constantly want to know if the book is based on a true story? How was I going to explain to them what the veil of fiction had done with my personal truth—made it stand out in sharp silhouette, but hidden its actual face?
Child readers want so desperately to believe in the truth of a book, if it resonates with them. In fact, they invariably find what is true and bring it to the forefront.
By boldly declaring Camo Girl as a work of fiction, something made up, I hated to rob them of any connection they might have had with the material as it related to their own lives. If believing in the truth of the story could make a few outcast sixth-graders feel less alone, it was worth putting myself under the microscope. Absolutely.
Kekla Magoon is a New York City-based author of books for teens. Her recent novels include Camo Girl and The Rock and the River, which won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award, an NAACP Image Award nomination and was named an ALA/YALSA Best Book for Young Adults.
|Available Jan. 3, 2012
She has also written several nonfiction titles, including Today the World Is Watching You: The Little Rock Nine and the Fight for School Integration, 1957 (Lerner 2011).
Kekla makes author visits and conducts book programs for youth in schools and libraries around the country. She is also a conference speaker, writing teacher, and was a founding editor of YA and children’s literature for the arts journal Hunger Mountain. She is a regular contributor for The Women’s Mosaic’s blog at and serves on the board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.
Kekla was raised in a biracial family in the Midwest, and also lived abroad in Cameroon, West Africa, as a child. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from Northwestern University and a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.