Updated at 3:58 p.m.
Courtesy of Kekla Magoon
Kekla Magoon had just picked up groceries to cook dinner on Monday evening when she saw that she had missed a phone call.
“I didn’t even hear the phone ring,” the Montpelier author said on Wednesday. She was in the grocery store parking lot when she noticed a voicemail from a 212 number.
“I figured that might be related to publishing, so I listened,” she said. “And it was the executive director of the National Book Foundation.”
Magoon is one of five finalists for the 2021 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
for her forthcoming nonfiction book Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party's Promise to the People
. “It’s pretty exciting,” she said. “A little surreal, also.”
She had known since September that she was on the long list for the prize, and she knew that the foundation planned to announce all 25 National Book Award finalists — five in each of five categories — on Tuesday, October 5, at 10 a.m. She hadn’t expected to hear anything until then. In a long “congratulatory voicemail with some logistics information,” foundation executive director Ruth Dickey asked Magoon to keep the news quiet and not to tell even her publisher.
Magoon went back into the grocery store and bought a bottle of Champagne to celebrate with friends once the news became public. Then she went home, cooked dinner and told no one.
“In the instructions, they say you can tell your spouse or significant other,” she said, “but I don’t have one, so … I decided just to enjoy it in my own mind for the evening, and then was very excited to call my editor at five minutes to 10 [on Tuesday morning] and say, ‘Hey, let’s watch the announcement together.’”
Revolution in Our Time
will be released on Tuesday, November 23. Magoon will sign copies at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier that afternoon. Her book traces the Black Panther Party through its social and historical contexts, from slavery to the group's inception in 1966 to today's ongoing anti-racist efforts.
She began researching the book shortly after her first novel was published in 2009. That book, The Rock and the River
, is set in the late 1960s and deals with characters who are involved in the Black Panther Party and the Civil Rights Movement.
For a September 21 Live Culture post
, Magoon recalled that "[Teachers and librarians] kept coming to me, saying, 'My students read [The Rock and the River
]; we're really intrigued by the history; where can we go to learn more about the Black Panther Party?'"
But she found that books about the Black Panthers for that age group were lacking.
"I was trying to bridge those [gaps] by writing something more accessible for a young audience that hopefully could be read by people of all ages," she said.
Traditionally, Magoon said, National Book Award winners are announced at a black-tie gala in Manhattan. This year, because of the pandemic, winners will be announced exclusively online at the 72nd National Book Awards Ceremony on November 17.
Winners will give speeches on camera, she said, but she probably won’t buy a dress for the event. “I would if I was going to an in-person gala, but I think I’ll wear something I already have for the Zoom version.”
Magoon, 41, teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She recently received the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association for achievements spanning her career.
She was on the long list for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2015 for X: A Novel
, a young-adult book she co-authored with Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz.
Publishers submitted a total of 1,892 books for this year’s National Book Awards, according to the foundation, including 344 in Young People’s Literature. Other finalists in that category are Shing Yin Khor for The Legend of Auntie Po
, Malinda Lo for Last Night at the Telegraph Club
, Kyle Lukoff for Too Bright to See
and Amber McBride for Me (Moth)
Friends, fellow authors and other award finalists lit up Magoon’s social media accounts with congratulatory messages on Tuesday. Still floating on the news, she was back at work on Wednesday.
“Well, I’m trying to write another novel, as one always is, so I didn’t get much writing done yesterday,” she said. “But that’s what I’m back at today. The show must go on.”