Caleb and Bobby Gene Franklin live in a don’t-rock-the-boat family in the tiny town of Sutton, IN, “the crossroads to nowhere”. Bobby Gene, older by a year, may be content with their life, but eleven-year-old Caleb wants excitement.
When the boys’ attempt to trade their baby sister for a bag of contraband fireworks, strangely goes wrong, their attempt to cover his tracks leads them to smooth-talking candy-cigarette-smoking foster kid Styx Malone. At sixteen, he always knows a guy, and carries business cards that say Everything Man.
Styx could have just taken the fireworks off their hands and called it a day, but that would make for a pretty lame storyline. Instead, he takes the boys on a wild ride to get an “escalator trade” (think the red paperclip story) to keep swapping the fireworks until the get a Grasshopper moped.
There are a lot of delightful ambiguities in THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE, beginning with whether Caleb is a co-conspirator or simply manipulated. Sad backstories are hinted at, never spelled out; while Styx is a caring person beneath his swagger, his time in the foster care system has clearly taught him that he can only rely on others for so much. While how intentionally is not clear, Styx’s antics help a lot of the adults in the story come to terms with their own demons.
I’ll be giving my own son this book because Magoon introduces certain timely social commentary to in a cutting but warranted and age-appropriate way. It’s never outright said, but it’s likely that Caleb’s dad lost a loved one to racist police violence. Adults and children openly discuss that being Black usually means suspicion and unfair judgements by strangers, and less latitude for standard childhood mischief.* The more this societal cancer is surfaced and called out, the better we all fare.
Indiana DCF, who randomly uproots both Styx and his foster sister Pixi from loving foster homes a few times, just for giggles, shows adults don’t always act in the best interests of the most vulnerable children.
Based on Magoon’s hilarious and thought-provoking writing, I expect THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE to join Magoon’s other books and have a much-deserved shiny thing on its cover soon.
In the meantime, I’m going to find some more Kekla Magoon books.
Give to fans of Jason Reynolds and Jennifer L. Holm.
Confidential to writers: If you’re looking for a mentor text on how to nail voice and ooze personality from every serif, Styx Malone is it.
*It’s not that parents in families of color can be overprotective because we’re wound too tight. We’re overprotective because we have to be. Seeing a main character’s dad fit a little-discussed but pervasive sociological cliche, is very refreshing.