X is the story of Malcolm Little’s formative years, before he became Malcolm X and a renowned human rights activist. Written by his daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz (Growing Up X, One World, 2003), and Coretta Scott King honoree Kekla Magoon (How It Went Down, Holt, 2014), this captivating book captures the rhythm and the groove of early 1940’s Roxbury and Harlem, as the charismatic Malcolm hustles his way through the world, before going to jail and eventually converting to Islam.
There are twin voices in Malcolm’s head throughput this period. On the one hand, his family and particularly his father Earl Little, a civil rights activist who was murdered when Malcolm was only 6, believe in the strength, power and dignity of black people. But, in Malcolm’s mind, this conviction is countered by a teacher who casually tells him that he’s “just a nigger.” (I thought long and hard about including the word nigger here – but the importance of this phrase, used several times in the book, to Malcolm’s picture of himself is paramount and, really, the power word in the phrase is actually “just”).
Perhaps because of Earl Little’s early death, Malcolm spends many years latching on to different father figures to guide him including Shorty, a saxophone player in Boston, Sammy the Pimp in Harlem, and John Bembry in jail. Though many lead him astray, they all act as protectors and teachers.
Clearly Malcolm makes many questionable choices in his lifestyle and his activities, and these are not in any way glossed over. Rather, the authors keep bringing us back to the core beliefs of his family about the abilities and pride of black people, which Malcolm interprets in his own, somewhat twisted, way before coming full circle to accept them as intended. It seems he needed these explorations of the darker side of life to be able to truly understand what his parents felt so strongly.
The authors are clear that this is a novelization – minor characters are composites, there are some simplifications, and the dialog is invented – but it remains true to the journey that Malcolm X undertook in his early life. A timeline, notes on historical context and further reading suggestions are also included.
Though X only covers the years before Malcolm rose to prominence, it will give teen readers an enthralling picture of both the era, and the development of one of the most influential people of the 20th century.