Betty Before X

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Modern Age

Betty Before X
Author: Shabazz, Ilyasah
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Time Period: Modern Age
Time Frame: 1934-1948
Geographic Area: North America
Country: United States
Topics: Civil Rights
Genre: Non Fiction, Biography
Reading Age: Upper Middle Grade
Format: Chapter Book
Published: 2018

American History > Modern Age > African American History

Betty Before X is a powerful middle-grade fictionalized account of the childhood activism of Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s wife, written by their daughter Ilyasah Shabazz.

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.

Inspired by Betty's real life―but expanded upon and fictionalized through collaboration with novelist Renée Watson―Ilyasah Shabazz illuminates four poignant years in her mother’s childhood with this book, painting an inspiring portrait of a girl overcoming the challenges of self-acceptance and belonging that will resonate with young readers today.

Emily's Review

I found myself unable to put this book down, so I finished the whole thing in one sitting.

In this story, we see the childhood of Betty Shabazz and the people and events that shaped her in her formative years. She is born to a teenage mother but then raised by her aunt. When her aunt dies, she is sent to live with her mother, who has married and has 3 more daughters. She has a difficult relationship with her mother, who she calls Ollie Mae. When she tries to run away, she's taken in by the Malloys, a married couple from church who cares deeply for Betty. The Malloys are activists, and Mrs. Malloy is a leader in the Housewives League, which works towards boycotting businesses that won't hire black employees. She teaches Betty about activism, but also how to find the good in life even when everything appears to be terrible.

I think this book is a fantastic introduction to the civil rights movement. It's set in the second half of the 1940s in Detroit, so it's still years away from Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr, which I think is important - it shows that people were working and fighting for equality all along and in all parts of the country, not just in the south in the late 50s and 60s. And there are some really great conversations about race that Betty overhears. There are many famous people mentioned, Jazz music, and magazines like Ebony - there are so many interesting rabbit trails to visit as you read!

The writing is good, though there isn't really an overarching plot - it's more of a slice-of-life type of story. Betty is an inspiring character and I think children will resonate with her story.

I recommend this book for ages 10+.

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