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.
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.
“The sky’s no limit if you’ve flown / on your own power in countless dreams; / […] / not if you’ve gazed at stars / and known God meant for you to soar.” page 1
You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffery Boston Weatherford.
Atheneum Books for Young Readers Imprint, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016.
Second person historical novel in verse, 80 pages including timeline and notes.
Lexile: 910L .
AR Level: 6.0 (worth 1.0 points) .
NOTE: I would consider this book for about 4th grade through adult reading.
This story told in the second person vividly delineates the journey of a black airman during WWII through sparse poems and black and white images based on historic photographs.
I did not expect to like this book. A novel in verse – already something I feel ambiguous about. Then you add the fact that this is in second person, which I tend to dislike even when it’s done well. Finally, I was under the misapprehension that this was a work of non-fiction about the Tuskegee Airmen.
Yet this book which I should have disliked actually captivated me.
First, let’s discuss the illustrations. There is one illustration on almost every other page. A few are full page, but most are half or less. They interact nicely with the text. Some scratch into the page, and in other cases there’s white text on black background so the words flow into the illustration. At a casual glance some of the illustrations look like photographs.
The life story of noted American folk artist Clementine Hunter, 1886/7-1988.
This book is part of our picture book artist biography series of reviews. Descended from slaves, Clementine Hunter was a folk artist who was a manual laborer on a Louisiana plantation known for attracting writers and artists. From the 1940s when she attracted the attention of patrons at the plantation until the late 1980s, she gained in popularity until she was able, at the end of her life, to live independently from the sale of her artworks.
“And that guy’s not the only one: bouncing his eyes around the room, Scoob realizes a bunch of people are looking at him and G’ma funny. One lady he makes eye contact with openly sneers at him like he’s done something wrong.” page 19
Clean Getaway by Nic Stone.
Crown Books for Young Readers, Random House Childrens, Penguin, New York, 2020.
MG fiction, 227 pages.
Lexile: 780L .
AR Level: not leveled
When William’s grandmother proposes a little trip, he’s all too happy about the loophole in his strict father’s grounding. But as they get further and further from home, and G’ma is acting stranger and stranger, he begins to believe that there is more to this unexpected road trip than he realized.
I hovered over this book a while, confused about the premise, because this doesn’t easily conform to a synopsis. So much happens without ever feeling overwhelming. The main characters are elderly white G’ma and William, who’s Black, eleven, and on spring break. Normally his father would take him on vacation, but some trouble at school led to the trip being cancelled and him grounded. It’s also been part of a larger miscommunication with his father.
“I have to suck up as much pride and dignity as I can while it’s there for me.” page 200
Fire from the Rock by Sharon Draper.
Speak, Penguin Group, New York, 2007.
YA historical fiction, 231 pages.
Lexile: 760L .
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 9.0 points) .
Sharon Draper detours from her usual realistic fiction for a historical novel set in 1957 during school integration at Little Rock.
The novel opens with a bang as a white man’s vicious dog is turned loose on Sylvia’s 8-year old sister. Several incidents throughout give a realistic portrayal of what it was like to live during that time period. For example, although Sylvia takes great pride in her mother’s sewing ability, it’s also a practical necessity since she explains that at the time only white people were allowed to try on clothes in department stores or return them if they didn’t fit. The nature of historical fiction also makes these glimpses more interesting and memorable to the reader than say, a textbook. I think this book would work well in a high school history course.
Bessie Coleman: Trailblazing Pilot (Rookie Biographies) by Carol Alexander.
Children’s Press, Scholastic, New York, 2016.
Picture book biography/early chapter book, 32 pages.
Lexile: 600L .
AR Level: 3.4 (worth 0.5 points) .
NOTE: Despite the reading level, these are typically used by first and second graders, or read aloud to younger students.
The life of Bessie Coleman, the first female African-American pilot.
Rookie Biographies is a series of books that use photographs and simple text to inform students about the lives of various historical and modern-day figures. This series tends to be perfect for second or third graders to read independently, although I’ve also seen them used with higher or lower elementary school students.
“Dream big, little one. There’s so much you can do. Just look at all the leaders who came before you.” pages 1 and 2
Dream Big, Little One by Vashti Harrison.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2018.
Board book nonfiction, 26 pages.
A board book adaptation of Harrison’s popular book Little Leaders.
We already have more board books than one family really needs. But after spending so long hunting for great diverse board books, I still get excited about new releases, especially one like this that has excellent role models for our daughters.
“Slavery corrupts the owners. The master’s sons are corrupted by their father’s immoral behavior. The master’s daughters hear their parents fighting about slave women and may overhear talk of their father having seduced or raped slaves.” page 30
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs, edited by Lisa Barsky.
The Townsend Library, Townsend Press, New Jersey, 2004 (first pub. 1861).
Slave narrative, 152 pages including editor’s afterword.
Lexile: 740L .
AR Level: 7.1 (worth 14.0 points) .
NOTE: I read a printed book which had been edited and contained additional back matter. Project Gutenberg has a free ebook version of the original text available.
The autobiography of a young woman born into slavery in 1813.
This book is remarkable, and I’m only surprised I didn’t read it sooner! But let me write a review anyway in case you need more convincing and haven’t clicked the link above to read it already. So many aspects of Jacob’s life are typical of her time, place, and station in life, but she herself is not very typical.
“We three stuck together / like the pages in a brand-new book. / And being normal young children, / we were almost always up to something.” page 10
My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Christine King Farris, illustrated by Chris Soentpiet.
Simon and Schuster, New York, 2003.
Picture book nonfiction, 40 pages.
Lexile: 970L .
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 0.5 points) .
Personal remembrances of Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood from his older sister Christine.
I debated a lot before buying this book. Our local libraries didn’t have it and the cover, especially in a small thumbnail version, is just so unattractive. However, I was hoping for something different from the standard stories, which is exactly what this book delivers. Luckily the interior art is excellent!
The book does skew a bit toward older readers with denser text and more difficult words like chifforobe, Cyclorama, Auburn, cruelty, bigotry, nourishing. The main focus here is on MLK’s childhood, specifically on two fronts – both the ways in which he was an ordinary, sometimes mischievous little boy, and the events that shaped his personality.
“Coretta’s mother, Bernice, believed that education was the key to a better life. She encouraged her children to work hard in school.” page 11
History Maker Bios: Coretta Scott King by Laura Hamilton Waxman, illustrations by Tad Butler.
Originally published by Lerner Publishing Group, Minneapolis, Minnesota, my edition Barnes & Noble, New York, 2008.
Biography, 48 pages including extras and index.
Lexile: 720L .
AR Level: 4.5 (worth 1.0 points) .
A biography of Coretta Scott King, best known as the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., although she was a civil rights activist herself as well.
Not long ago, I came across a Barnes and Noble that had all these little History Maker Bios and quite a lot of Sterling Biographies on clearance for a dollar each! I spent a happy hour picking out all the African American ones.