Book Review: “Betty Before X” by Ilyasah Shabazz and Renée Watson

Betty Before X: Shabazz, Ilyasah, Watson, Renée: 9781250294180:  Books

Book Details:

Year of Publication: 2018

Genre: Historical Fiction (Middle Grade)

Format (How I Read It): Paperback

Goodreads Synopsis:

A powerful middle-grade novel about the childhood activism of Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s wife, written by their daughter.

In Detroit, 1945, eleven-year-old Betty’s house doesn’t quite feel like home. She believes her mother loves her, but she can’t shake the feeling that her mother doesn’t want her. Church helps those worries fade, if only for a little while. The singing, the preaching, the speeches from guest activists like Paul Robeson and Thurgood Marshall stir African Americans in her community to stand up for their rights. Betty quickly finds confidence and purpose in volunteering for the Housewives League, an organization that supports black-owned businesses. Soon, the American civil rights icon we now know as Dr. Betty Shabazz is born.

Collaborating with novelist Renée Watson, Ilyasah Shabazz illuminates four poignant years in her mother’s childhood, painting a beautiful and inspiring portrait of a girl overcoming the challenges of self-acceptance and belonging that will resonate with young readers today.

Book Review

“I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him.” -Booker T. Washington

Themes: Love is always a big deal. Find the silver linings. Use what you have to make something out of nothing. Hope without hard work is nothing. Relationships take time and effort to grow. Love is in the little things. Chosen family. Sisterhood.

Character Development: While I really enjoyed the characters in this book, I did feel like there were a lot of them. And they were all introduced really quickly, so I found it difficult to keep track of who was who at times. That being said, each character definitely served a purpose in the story and I enjoyed seeing how they helped Betty grow.

Plot/Pacing: This was definitely a character-driven novel (as I’ve noticed is common with Renée Watson’s books), but I still feel like the plot could have been more structured. It’s paced decently in the beginning, but then for a significant portion of the book it feels kind of slow and meandering.

Writing Style: It’s written from the first person POV of Betty. It’s also historical fiction, which kind of surprised me. I don’t know why, but I went into it expecting it to be nonfiction. So it was my own fault that this threw me off, but I still thought it was important to clarify. Some of the chapters were longer, but there were several shorter chapters focused on Betty describing her blessings that were interspersed throughout the book. I really enjoyed this, and it really felt like Renée Watson’s style to me as this is a structure I’ve noticed in her other books as well (having short chapters mixed in).

“Bingeability”: Moderate-low. The characters are compelling, but the meandering plot makes it difficult to binge-read (but that’s okay!).

Emotional Investment: Moderate. Again, the characters are compelling, and knowing that many of them are based on real people makes them that much more interesting. However, just the sheer volume of characters makes a little difficult to fully invest emotionally since there are so many to keep track of.

Windows and Mirrors: Biological vs. adopted vs. chosen family. Racism. Activism.

Overall Thoughts: Something I really liked about this book was the use of sewing as a metaphor for Betty’s resilience, creativity, and perseverance. Betty says she likes sewing because it allows her to use what she has to make something out of nothing, and that’s an attitude she uses to approach challenges in other areas of her life as well. Also, I mentioned above that the story felt slow at times. This is true, but although it felt slow as I was reading, I realized I actually got through it really quickly. It’s an important story about the life of an inspiring woman. And as much as I love historical fiction, I actually found myself really wishing that this was nonfiction instead. I sometimes struggle with autobiographical historical fiction because, if it’s not fictionalized enough, the plot leaves something to be desired (because life doesn’t follow a set plot structure). However, if it’s too fictionalized, it can feel gimmicky and corny. I think this one fell into the former category a little bit. Also, I really wanted to know more about her life and work as an adult as well. I know a little bit about Malcolm X, but I’ve never had the opportunity to learn about Betty’s accomplishments. For that reason, I was wishing for it to be nonfiction so that I could have learned even more about Betty. However, I also see the benefit of the element of fiction allowing young readers to really connect with and be inspired by Betty and her activism as a young girl. It’s also important to note that there’s a lot of good information at the end of the book! There is a brief summary of Betty’s work as an adult and as a mother (since this was written by her daughter), and there is also a list of characters where it describes which characters were based on real people and which were entirely fictitious. I really appreciated this section of the book!

“It is my hope that by reading my mother’s story, young people who may be feeling abandoned or neglected, fearful or hopeless, anxious or unsure, will find inspiration. Betty certainly experienced all of those feelings at one time or another. However, she rose to become a devoted wife, a selfless mother, a compassionate friend, a bold activist, and – most importantly – a caring human being who lived her life with integrity and grace. It is not falling that defines you, it’s the process of what you determine to do each time you stand.” (Author’s Note)

Recommendation: I probably wouldn’t do this one for read-aloud since there is some language and violence that (while not over-the-top or inappropriate by any means) I wouldn’t be comfortable reading out loud to students. For instance, in the opening chapters of the book there is a scene where the characters come across a lynching (and this is something that haunts Betty throughout the book). Even though I wouldn’t do this one as a read-aloud, I will definitely be keeping it in my classroom as an option for independent reading for students. And I think this would be a great one for kids to read with an adult (whether a teacher or a guardian), so that the adult can explain some of the historical contexts as well as facilitate discussions about some of the important themes that come up. This is a moving story about a strong and inspiring woman, and I can’t wait to learn more about her!

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Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!

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