Review: Betty Before X

Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson.
Square Fish, Macmillan, New York, 2018.
MG historical fiction, 250 pages.
Lexile: 810L .
AR Level: 4.9 (worth 5.0 points) .

The life of one preteen girl in Detroit in 1945 – who later become the wife of Malcolm X. Betty wants nothing more than to be loved by her biological mother, but they disagree at every turn. She believes strongly in justice and fair treatment for all, but not everyone will stand with her.

Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson.

So much is happening in this book yet all balanced very well. Reading the prologue introduces several of the issues that will become themes throughout. When just five pages in, first-person narrator Betty tells us about seeing a lynching as a young girl in Georgia, it is immediately clear that this book will be sensitive but not dishonest.

The fostering/adoption/kinship narratives are also handled well. The prologue briefly covers Betty’s early life. At one year old, she was taken from her teenaged mother by her grandmother, and raised lovingly by her aunt. After her aunt’s sudden death, she moved in with her biological mother and learned that she has three half-sisters and two step-brothers.

Her role ends up being more like a caretaker to the seven other members of her family; she constantly feels unappreciated and faces harsh punishments and constant misunderstandings. Church is a source of hope and light for Betty – her Christian faith and involvement with various activities at Bethel AME specifically are a major part of the book.

Though Betty’s aunt never adopted her and was always her aunt, at two other points adoption does come up. It’s not clear from the story whether a formal legal adoption process was carried out in either case, but also it’s not relevant given the time period and community. Informal adoptions agreed upon by the relevant parties was, and still is, very common in the Black community.

It’s even a process in some courts today – claiming fictive kinship. Basically, adults who have a prior well-established relationship with the child, such as a godparent, teacher, family friend, club leader, or neighbor, can take in the child to raise. These adoptions or guardianships are typically more open and humane than the legal formalities of white or international adoption, although correspondingly more complex.

It’s been a while since historical fiction resonated with me so strongly. One of the few issues is that occasionally terminology used seemed too modern for the time period. For example, while saying biological and adoptive parents to distinguish between the two is generally accepted today, at that time I don’t believe biological mother was in use yet. Or the casual mention of nightlights which were different than todays. However, this minor issue is not likely to bother middle grade readers.

While the terminology occasionally felt slightly off, other aspects were pitch perfect. Shabazz and Watson manage to convey how deeply wounding the dehumanization of racism is, while still maintaining the sense of hope necessary for middle grade fiction. The relationship between Betty and her birth mother Ollie Mae, in particular, is handled so well. Few authors capture the nuances of this sort of relationship well, let alone in a historical context with added layers for young readers to parse.

Betty is whipped with a switch excessively in one scene (not uncommon for the time) and while realistically depicted, this is also sensitively portrayed and clearly shown to be wrong. However, Ollie Mae is also not dehumanized or villianized because of her wrongdoing, and the story makes it clear that Betty both is angry and scared, and still loves her mother deeply.

Beyond the content warnings mentioned above, others include race riots, legal segregation, forced integration, protests, boycotts, a police shooting, military discrimination, WWII, lying, keeping money meant for church collection, prank phone calls, racial microaggressions and institutional racism, tuberculosis, poverty, colorism, and possibly others that I’ve missed. The shooting of Malcolm X in front of his children and the firebombing of their home are also described by his daughter in her author’s note.

By the halfway point, several real historical figures and events had come up, and I wondered if young readers would get all the references. Thankfully, there is an excellent author’s note, pages and pages to help separate the real historical events and people from the fictional aspects, and even a detailed timeline.

Although the book does not have any explicitly Muslim content other than the author’s note information, this review from Islamic School Librarian might still be of interest. The storyline does have a strong Christian presence and a belief in God – but it is not presented in a proselytizing way, and as this is based on real historical events, I would feel okay adding this title to a non-religious library.

Highly recommended for middle school libraries and classrooms. Teachers on the elementary side of middle grade will want to preread or at least be aware of the subjects discussed – whether this is suitable for fourth graders will depend a lot on the class or individual students. Although I’m not sure if teens would actually read a book about a preteen girl (she begins the book at 11 and it ends when she is 14), this may work for some high school libraries as well.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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