Photo of Kekla Visiting an Oakland Museum of California exhibit on the Black Panther Party. The wall images are spreads from The Black Panther, the Party’s weekly newspaper.
Today I am thrilled to welcome Kekla Magoon to talk about the process of researching and writing her multi-award winning book Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People (Candlewick, 2021). Kekla’s passion, curiosity, and dedication to diligence are energizing and inspiring.
Welcome, Kekla. Your most recent nonfiction title for young adult readers, Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People was a National Book Award finalist, and has garnered a Coretta Scott King Author Award Honor, a Michael L. Printz Honor, and a Walter Dean Myers Honor. Congratulations! Tell us about what drew you to your subject.
Thank you. It’s been amazing to have the book honored by all of these awards. I’ve worked on the project for about ten years, beginning back when my first novel, The Rock and the River, came out (Simon & Schuster, 2009). Set in 1968 Chicago, the novel tells the story of 13-year-old Sam, whose father is a civil rights activist and whose brother joins the Black Panther Party, leaving Sam uncertain of what path to follow himself. This was the first mainstream young adult novel to address the Black Panther Party, and soon I wrote a companion, Fire in the Streets (Simon & Schuster, 2012), to dive deeper into life in the Party as well.
Speaking and teaching about the Black Panther Party in school visits during that time was wonderful but challenging, because there were few resources accessible to teens that would expand their understanding of the Panthers. Teachers and librarians who shared my novels with middle school and high school students kept asking what nonfiction resources I could recommend for their lessons, and I soon realized that the thing we all needed didn’t yet exist. So I set out to create it.
It took a decade to complete the project because the research was complex and widespread, and my goals for the project made it a significant undertaking. I visited museums, libraries, historical societies and archives, as well as attending film screenings, panel discussions, Black Panther Party alumni events, conferences, and so much more. It also proved challenging to find a publisher that would allow me to create the book in the style I wanted, and I’m grateful to Candlewick Press for taking it on and pouring significant resources into making the book as large and colorful as I wanted it to be. I wanted it heavily illustrated with archival photos and plentiful sidebars to keep the text lively and rich. My goal was to share the powerful experience I had discovering this material such that readers could discover it too, but without having to travel to a dozen different museums.
What is your favorite part about writing nonfiction?
I love the process of finding the story within the facts, and bringing it together in a way that presents information clearly while also building a narrative that helps the reader understand how all the bits and pieces of the history fit together. For example, within the tale of the Black Panther Party, there are a lot of cold hard facts like the year they were founded (1966) and the number of cities that ultimately had BPP chapters (over 40), but there’s a bigger narrative underpinning that, a story that explains why the Panthers were founded in that particular moment, and what led to the organization to have national appeal, and how the Party came to be in each of those forty cities.
As a researcher, you draw that larger narrative from details in the historical record, in the same way that you collect the cold hard facts, but putting it all together is more complicated than creating a list that reports the simple data of “this happened and then this happened.”
What’s the most challenging part?
Historical research is limited by what’s available in the historical record. There are lots of things that happened in the past that were not recorded, or that have been talked about but not documented, or that seem to have been true, but are difficult to prove exactly. It’s challenging to sort through a pile of research and know where the holes might be, or what the same information would look like if it had been presented by a different historian. This is especially true when writing about history that has often gone untold, and for which much of the historical record that does exist—via newspapers, media, nonfiction texts, etc.—was written through a biased lens.
The version of Panther history to be found in mainstream (predominantly white-written) media is steeped in anti-Black bias and as such lends different weight to certain facts, or presents opinion or perception as empirical truth. With any historical study, it takes a lot of time and energy to sort through different versions of the same narrative in order to understand what was really going on.
How do you choose which nonfiction subjects to pursue?
I follow my instincts, pursuing projects that excite me, or that ignite my curiosity, or that expand upon topics I’m already passionate about (like social justice). Ideally, all of the above! Writers are often given the advice to “write what you know,” and that can be very powerful advice for approaching both fiction and nonfiction (e.g., trained scientists writing about science topics).
But I’m also often drawn to learn about a topic because it’s something I don’t know, or something I have questions about that I want to understand better. The research process can involve a lot of discovery, and if I emerge from that process with new knowledge that I feel equipped to share, I might decide to write a book about it.
What advice would you give to writers looking to tackle nonfiction projects?
Definitely to follow your passion.
This means two things: first, choosing a subject that you are excited to dive into and spend time with every day for a long time. The research process and the writing process can both be arduous and lengthy, so if you start with something you’re only mildly interested in, you’ll get bored or tired too quickly, and it will show in your work.
Second, if you examine the things you’re passionate about in life, you may find research topics spring from those places. Your career background, or hobbies, or aspects of your upbringing could inspire subjects to pursue.
When researching nonfiction projects, what are the most important things for a writer to remember?
The most important thing is accuracy, and a very close second is thoroughness. Some nonfiction writers say that it’s ideal to keep researching for a project until you find that the “new” material and resources you find are full of information that already feels very familiar. As long as you’re regularly uncovering fresh details and new pieces of the narrative, you haven’t reached the bottom of the well yet. As you go through your research process, it’s important to keep very good records of your sources and, more specifically, what information came from what source.
It feels quite time consuming to record everything in detail as you find it, but it saves a lot of time in the long run. If you begin writing the project months or years later, it’s difficult to remember where you encountered that fact you found striking but didn’t bother to write down.
Did you consult with subject matter experts? If so, at what point in the process did you contact them?
Yes, I drew upon resources from scholars and met or spoke with a number of former Panthers and academics and others who are expert in the material during the research process. These contacts occurred throughout the entire research and writing process. I also considered having the finished manuscript reviewed by a Black American history scholar, but in the end I chose not to. The concept of “subject matter expertise” is complicated when writing about history that has often gone untold or been told through a systemically biased lens.
My research process was extensive, I documented my sources thoroughly, and my publisher was very thorough about the fact-checking and source confirmation as well. I can’t claim the book is 100% perfect, because no history can be, but having done so much primary source research via archives, newspapers, and oral histories from people of the era, I feel confident in the truth and accuracy of the overall work.
Kekla Magoon writes novels and nonfiction books for children and teens, often exploring themes of identity, community, empowerment, and social justice. Acclaimed titles include The Season Of Styx Malone, winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (Wendy Lamb, 2018), How It Went Down, a Coretta Scott King Honor book (Henry Holt, 2014), and Revolution In Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise To The People, which was a Michael L. Printz Honor winner and National Book Award Finalist. Kekla received the 2021 Margaret A. Edwards Award, a body-of-work recognition for a significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature. Kekla holds a BA in history from Northwestern University and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now teaches. Find her online at keklamagoon.com and learn more about the book at revolutioninourtime.com.
Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency. Connect with her at stephanimartinelleaton.com.