The Rock and the River


True to the young teen’s viewpoint, this taut, eloquent first novel will make readers feel what it was like to be young, black, and militant 40 years ago, including the seething fury and desperation over the daily discrimination that drove the oppressed to fight back. …An important title for YA American History classes.

—Booklist, starred review



About the Book

The Time: 1968
The Place: Chicago

For thirteen-year-old Sam it’s not easy being the son of known civil rights activist Roland Childs. Especially when his older (and best friend), Stick, begins to drift away from him for no apparent reason. And then it happens: Sam finds something that changes everything forever.

Sam has always had faith in his father, but when he finds literature about the Black Panthers under Stick’s bed, he’s not sure who to believe: his father or his best friend. Suddenly, nothing feels certain anymore.

Sam wants to believe that his father is right: You can effect change without using violence. But as time goes on, Sam grows weary of standing by and watching as his friends and family suffer at the hands of racism in their own community. Sam beings to explore the Panthers with Stick, but soon he’s involved in something far more serious — and more dangerous — than he could have ever predicted. Sam is faced with a difficult decision. Will he follow his father or his brother? His mind or his heart? The rock or the river?

Awards and Honors

  • Winner of the 2010 Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe Award by the American Library Association
  • 2010 NAACP Image Awards nominee, for “Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens”
  • 2010 ALA/YALSA Best Books for Young Adults
  • 2010 ALA Notable Books for Children
  • A 2009 Junior Library Guild Selection
  • 2009 Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Teens
  • 2009 Booklist Top Ten Debut Novels
  • Bank Street Best Book
  • Nutmeg List
  • Capitol Choices
  • Rebecca Caudill Nominee
  • Eliot Rosewater List


Magoon’s first novel shows movingly how the two sons of a civil rights leader come to bear the cost of the struggle. In the fictional, but convincingly detailed, world of the book….the younger boy, Sam – not sure what or whom to believe – tells the story and has to decide how it will end.”

—The New York Times Book Review 



As it stands, Kekla Magoon’s book is an original. There are few enough books out there like it, and I think we have room in this world for more. A smart, sensible, deeply layered title. A necessary addition to our shelves from a time period too often colored in black and white terms.”

—A Fuse #8 Production


Magoon portrays well the tension between the Panthers and the Civil Rights Movement. An author’s note provides further historical context….this is an important book about a historical reality that has not been dealt with in juvenile fiction.

—School Library Journal 


“This compelling debut novel set in 1968 Chicago vividly depicts how one African-American family is torn between two opposing approaches to the Civil Rights Movement. …Magoon is unflinching in her depictions of police brutality and racism. She offers readers a perspective that is rarely explored, showing that racial prejudices were not confined to the South and that the Civil Rights Movement was a truly national struggle.

—Kirkus Reviews 


YA Blogger Reviews

“In the course of Sam Childs’ coming of age story, amidst the American history I thought I knew so well, author Kekla Magoon has radically altered my understanding of the Black Panther Party. In her debut novel, Magoon, who studied history as an undergraduate, does an exceptional job of integrating many sides of very complex racial and political issues into this tense tale of an adolescent who has grown up in the Civil Rights Movement.”

—Richie Partington, Richie’s Picks


“The Rock and the River will make you think. It will make you think regardless of your racial or social background. We have, finally, a story that has been missing from the young adult literature canon for far too long. Buy this book. Read this book. Share this book with others. You will not be sorry.”

—Ed Spicer, Spicy Reads


“Author Kekla Magoon has a gem on her hands. One that I cannot even possibly describe how great and important it is. …this is a novel everyone needs to read and one that teachers should be placing on their classroom lists. It is a significant and utterly important story to be read, especially for a first-time author. Bravo Kekla Magoon!

—Amanda Snow, A Patchwork of Books


Author Kekla Magoon brings this tumultuous time in history to life for readers of all ages, not just teens. Her story of Sam and his brother speak clearly about the feeling of the times, and perhaps even shed light on some of the problems of today. She vividly describes the frustration, the hatred, and the tension found in the streets of Chicago both before and after the tragic death of Dr. King. THE ROCK AND THE RIVER is a powerful statement about a powerful time.

—Sally Kruger, Reading Junky


Available for download: Classroom Guide to The Rock and the River.


What was the Black Panther Party?

The complete answer to this question could fill a whole book! Luckily, I am writing such a book right now. In the meantime, here is a shorter answer to get you started:

The Black Panther Party was a nationwide organization that existed in black communities in the United States from 1966 until about 1982. The Panthers played several roles in these communities:  they were civil rights activists, community organizers, and could even be called a political party. The Panthers created community service programs like free breakfast programs and free health clinics for people in need, and they patrolled poor black neighborhoods to protect citizens from police brutality, which was common at the time. Most of the Panthers were young black Americans who had grown very frustrated with racism in their communities, so they decided to take action to change the way people thought about race in America. Unlike the civil rights movement activists before them (who all committed to non-violent passive resistance) the Panthers carried guns and believed equality should be defended by any means necessary, a philosophy which remains controversial to this day.


Is Sam’s father, Roland Childs, a real historical figure? Is Sam’s story real?

The Rock and the River is a fictional (made-up) story, but it is based on some real historical events. None of the main characters in the book are named for real people. The book does refer to some real people, though, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Hampton, who was the leader of the Chicago Black Panther Party. I consider Sam’s story real because a lot of young teenagers faced the choice that Sam faces in the book—whether to remain a part of the civil rights movement, or join the Black Panther Party.


How did you choose this topic for your novel? Why did you want to write about something that happened so long ago?

I answer this question a lot. If you read some of my interviews and/or watch my videos, you will see that I have found lots of ways to talk about my inspiration for The Rock and the River, and why it was a meaningful book for me to write. Here are the highlights: I like history. I think it is important to know where we as a society have been so that we can better understand how we got to where we are, and where we’re going from here. America has come a long way since the civil rights era, in some respects, and not far enough in others. Writing this book helped me see those parallels very intensely, and it made me wonder what I would have done, what choice I would have made if I had been around when the civil rights era went through the transition from non-violent protest to militant community organizing. Exploring that question fueled my writing process. Plus, 1968 seems like it is longer ago than it really was. Lots of people who were children, teenagers, young adults and even middle aged adults in 1968 are alive and can tell their own stories about these difficult days. It was important to me to begin an intergenerational conversation with young people and adults about this recent history and how it affects us today.