The Robin Hood Within by Kekla Magoon
I’ve always enjoyed Robin Hood stories. I was first introduced to him in my childhood through the Disney cartoon movie, in which Robin and Maid Marian are played by foxes and other animals form the rest of the cast of characters. I began to seek out other stories about this legendary outlaw, and I delighted in seeing Robin Hood-like things happening in small ways in the real world. I suspect that even at a young age, the story tripped the switches of my budding passion for social justice issues.
It’s a touch ironic, then, that I began writing my Robyn Hoodlum Adventures series because I wanted to break away from the kinds of things I am used to writing. So much of my work has centered around race and civil rights issues, and it’s hard to write on these topics for too long without becoming mentally and emotionally exhausted. I have written about the civil rights era, and about teens experiencing loss and loneliness, and about the controversial shooting of a black teen by a white man—topics that remain all too relevant in the world today.
Shadows of Sherwood came about, in part, as a reaction to having that kind of seriousness in other areas of my work. It’s important to me to stretch myself as an artist and to create different kinds of books about teens of color. I found myself turning to the playful Robin Hood character and reimagining him as a biracial twelve-year-old girl in a futuristic world. I found solace by diving into my own version of Robyn, capturing the rebelliousness, the resourcefulness, the connection to woods and earth, and ultimately, the none-too-subtle social justice message that lies beneath the catchphrase: “rob from the rich to give to the poor.”
There is still loss and heartache and struggle in this novel, just like my other books reflect, but it is so different in the context of this middle grade adventure. As I’ve read the Harry Potters and the Percy Jacksons of the world over the years, I’ve wondered to myself what it would do for young teens of color to see more such books with themselves as heroes. In that way, the Robyn series is also an effort to create something that needs to exist in the world, but it’s primarily something that has been fun and compelling for me to explore as a writer.
As a writer of color, I feel a certain pressure to write characters of color, and to write the stories that the world “needs.” This can be burdensome at times. I want to write characters of color, for sure, but I’m not convinced that all these books need to deal with Race with a capital R, as if the only purpose black characters serve in literature is to enlighten readers about our complicated racial history.
Seeing faces of all colors on book covers is one important facet of diversity in literature, but appearance is not the be-all, end-all of any given character. Robyn’s biraciality is an important facet of her character, but she is also a gymnast, a loner longing for friendship, a rich girl thrust into a world where she has nothing. She is bold and caring, a rebel and a leader. Her biraciality is not her be-all end-all, nor is it an erasable thing. It matters. I expect brown-skinned young readers to be happy to see Robyn’s face on these books, but I don’t expect them to connect with her because of her racial identity. That would not be giving her enough credit as a character. It is reductive to say that kids of color need to read about kids of color, full stop. Black nerds need nerdy books, black athletes need athletic books, black fashionistas need books that explore fashion—our interests are as many and varied as the shades of our skin. We are not monolithic, and we need our books to show us as complex as we are.
For me, that has meant finding lots of different ways to write about the things I care about—how people are treated, how we stand up for one another, how we struggle, how we form our identities, and how we find connection, especially when we feel lost. Robyn does this in her own way. All of my characters do. I might have tried to escape my usual literary fare by turning to a lighthearted fantasy, but all I managed to do was find a fun new way to reveal the restless and troublemaking Robin Hood within me.
Kekla Magoon’s newest novel, Shadows of Sherwood (Bloomsbury) comes out August 4. She is also the Coretta Scott King Honor-winning author of How It Went Down, The Rock and the River, X: A Novel (written with Ilyasah Shabazz), and more. Kekla makes author visits to schools and libraries nationwide and teaches writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.