The Season of Styx Malone: Looking at Characterization in a Mentor Text

Welcome to week 3 of Teachers Write! Hopefully, you’ve already had a chance to read our mentor text for this week, Kekla Magoon’s THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE. But even if you haven’t, don’t worry – our posts will be spoiler free as we take a look at some of the writing craft lessons found in these pages.
 
If you’re just finding us and aren’t familiar with this MG novel, here’s the jacket copy…
 
Caleb Franklin and his big brother, Bobby Gene, have the whole summer to explore the woods in Sutton, Indiana. Caleb longs to venture beyond their small town, but his dad likes the family to stay close to home.
 
Then Caleb and Bobby Gene meet new neighbor Styx Malone. Styx is sixteen, and he oozes cool. He’s been lots of different places. Styx promises the boys that together, they can pull off the Great Escalator Trade – a way to turn one small thing into more, and more, until they achieve their wildest dream. But as the trades get bigger, the brothers find themselves in over their heads. Styx has secrets – and Caleb fears their whole plan might fall apart.
 
In this madcap, heartwarming, one-thing-leads-to-another adventure, friendships are forged, loyalties are tested…and miracles just might be possible.
 
This novel is interesting right off the bat because it breaks one of the usual conventions by having someone who’s not the protagonist or narrator named in the title. Styx Malone isn’t the main character here – he’s the catalyst, the guy who makes the action happen for the narrator-protagonist, Caleb. Styx Malone isn’t the only character in kidlit who grabs a starring role in the title without being the protagonist. Maniac Magee, Yaqui Delgado, Ms. Bixby, Tyler Johnson, Zachary Beaver, and Fudge all made the titles of their books without being the main characters. In all of these novels, the title character is someone who has a profound effect on the protagonist’s life. In that way, the title of THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE sets up from the very beginning what’s to come.
 
The opening paragraphs reinforce that.
 
Styx Malone didn’t believe in miracles, but he was one. Until he came along, there was nothing very special about life in Sutton, Indiana.
 
Styx came to us like magic – the really, really powerful kind. There was no grand puff of smoke or anything, but he appeared as if from nowhere, right in our very own woods.
 
Maybe we summoned him, like a superhero responding to a beacon in the night.
 
Maybe we just plain wanted everything he offered. Adventure. Excitement. The biggest trouble we’ve ever gotten into in our lives, we got into with Styx Malone.

As leads go, this is one to hold up as an example. In just shy of a hundred words, Kekla a) establishes the voice of Caleb, our main character, b) sets up the idea that Styx will change his life, and c) makes a promise to readers about what this novel is all about – adventure, excitement, and trouble.
 
From the title and the very first page, we know that this Styx Malone character is going to transform Caleb’s life in some way. But if we’re going to fully appreciate that change, we need to know who Caleb is before Styx shows up. In answering that question, Kekla offers a master class in characterization. We learn that Caleb longs for a world beyond his small town. And we learn it in a dozen, subtle ways.
 
I woke up with the sunrise, like usual. Stretched my hands and feet from my top bunk to the ceiling, like usual. I touched each of the familiar pictures taped there: the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way, Victoria Falls, Table Mountain.
 

We learn so much from these 41 words. The repetition of “like usual” tells us that Caleb’s life has a predictable pattern to it. But wait! This is also a kid who’s taped pictures of faraway places to the ceiling above his bunk, so that they’re the first thing he sees every morning. He literally starts each day by reaching for them. This is a kid who is dreaming of places beyond Sutton. He dreams when he watches the news with his dad, too…
 
But every once in a while I would see something that made me want to reach through the screen and touch it, you know? Like to get closer to it, or to make it a little bit real. There was a story about dolphins one time. And a feature about a group of kids who sailed a boat around the world. Special things. Things you’d never find in Sutton.
 
Can’t you just hear the longing? Caleb’s voice is so strong here. You know? Special things. Things you’d never find in Sutton. And it lets readers feel that longing, too.
 
In this same, watching-the-news scene, we get an amazing sense for Caleb’s dad, too. They’re watching the same program, but they watch it so differently. Kekla used that contrast to create tension between the two that becomes a driving force in this novel.
 
The problem was, Dad was always talking about us being ordinary folks – about how ordinary folks like this and ordinary folks need that. He usually said all this to the TV, but our house isn’t that big and his voice is pretty loud so you can always hear him.
 
Ordinary folks just need to be able to fill the gas tank without it breaking them.
Ordinary folks go to church on Sundays.
Ordinary folks don’t care who you’ve been stepping out with; just pass the dang laws.

 
Don’t you just feel like you know Dad from the way he talks to the news?
 
These are brilliant opening pages, and Kekla returns to these themes and threads throughout the novel. That’s part of what makes it feel so real and cohesive.
 
Your assignment for today is to skim through your copy of THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE and look for the places that call back to those opening pages. How does the author use those images and ideas like the photos on the ceiling and the idea of being ordinary to build character, create tension, and move the story forward? Feel free to make notes on your own, or if you’d like, you can chat with other Teachers Write participants in the comments. To comment, you may need to click on the title of this blog post and scroll down to the bottom.
 

5 Replies on “The Season of Styx Malone: Looking at Characterization in a Mentor Text

  1. That idea of not being ordinary echoes throughout the book. Bobby Gene even rolls his eyes at the mention of it. “Here we go again,” he says.on page 91, when Caleb says he doesn’t want to be ordinary. Styx realizes it’s a good way to motivate (manipulate?) Caleb or get him to overcome some of his doubts about the escalator deal.
    “You feeling dissatisfied?” Styx asks Caleb, and he proceeds to explain how “Dissatisfaction is the first step on the road to greatness.” A few lines down, he adds, “People who like things exactly the same aren’t the ones who go out and change the world.” He’s playing up the contrast between Caleb and his father.
    I think Kekla Magoon is using that word ordinary (and un-ordinary and extra-ordinary) at first to show motivation. Later, in the book it’s also part of Caleb’s new understanding.

  2. I have a few more images that recur but have a slightly different meaning in the later instances:

    I don’t think these are spoilers, but they do come from later in the book, so some people might want to skip them. They’re two lines I copied into my notebook after I finished the book. I don’t always do that, but this book had so many amazing lines, that I filled five pages. Here are two that echo the early lines:

    From page 239 “Styx, from that day, lives in my mind like a series of snapshots, Styx by the roadside…Styx gazing across the field…Styx on Pike’s porch, looking nervous and scared…”
    To me, that echoes the photos over Caleb’s bed, the images of adventure, but in this later part of the story, there’s a lot more of a range of emotions or understanding attached to the images. Caleb is seeing more than just adventure.

    The other one that stood out to me, actually uses the word “echo” and it uses the words from that opening description of Styx that Kate quoted.

    From page 265
    “When I thought back on our summer, I could see it. All the things that echoed with me about him. Freedom. Adventure. Excitement. Did it mean never really caring about anyone?
    To be like Styx, to really fly, would I have to leave behind everything?”

    I think Kekla Magoon is coming back to those words from page 1, but now she’s trying to show that Caleb isn’t thinking the same way he did when he first met Styx.

  3. I think Chapter 9 is where I first definitely felt the connection back to that introduction of Caleb. At the start of Chapter 9, the boys are concerned about where Styx is leading them, feeling they are “long past the point of no return” and “definitely supposed to tell Mom before we went this far.” This reminds us of that opening and the idea that our narrator longs to explore but has also grown up in a household where they are raised to be ordinary and safe and not go exploring, so he feels the excitement of getting out there but the tension of what will happen if he gets into trouble. The narrator then says that he studies Styx closely and how he is “sliding through the world like the air around him was greased” and how he “thought all things were possible.” Again, we are taken back to that opening where we find out how “ordinary” our narrator feels, and that helps us see how intrigued he is by someone who is clearly not “ordinary.” Then the narrator makes a statement which I think encapsulates his whole relationship with Styx and how inspiring he is: “He came from somewhere outside the small world Bobby Gene and I occupied. When we were with him, I could almost touch that place too. Styx made me hungry for something I didn’t know how to name.” Wow. That is powerful. That’s the kid who dreams as he looks at pictures or watches TV suddenly realizing it might be possible to move beyond his small bubble and go out into a larger world. Great character development.

  4. A couple of weeks ago, I tried to find this book at our local library and they did not have it, but I put a request in for it. Sorry I have not read it and cannot respond, sounds like a great read.

  5. This book sounds like a good one. Will be looking forward to reading it very soon. Kate thanks so much for the time and work you have put into doing this

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