Category Archives: biography/memoir

X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

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XX by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon
Candlewick, 2015

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.

Elena Vanishing by Elena Dunkle and Clare B. Dunkle

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elena vanishingElena Vanishing by Elena Dunkle and Clare B. Dunkle
Chronicle, 2015.

This grueling and intense memoir covers the many years that Elena Dunkle was treated for anorexia, and is published simultaneously with Clare B. Dunkle’s Hope and Other Luxuries, which gives her mother’s perspective. The daughter’s story is a challenging read, as for two-thirds of the book we are in the head of a young woman whose life revolves around her number – what she weighs – and who is driven by a harshly critical inner voice, goading her on all the time.

Elena is an overachieving perfectionist, and scoffs at the idea of an eating disorder: “The meal-skipping I do these days isn’t a disorder because it never lacks order.” She is a control freak, super-organized and never without a planned day. She shows the tenacity and cunning of an anorexic – perfecting the art of silent vomiting, secreting BB pellets in her bra when she goes to be weighed, buying drinks with lids so no-one can see what she is, or more likely isn’t, consuming.

As the doctors and therapists delve to find out “What Went Wrong”, the treatments Elena receives often appear cruel, and her parents, both scapegoats and martyrs, seem to be flailing in the dark. It is only after her sister has a baby, Elena herself miscarries, and finally opens the door to a memory from when she was 13, that she is at last ready to start on the road to healing. Even then, “recovery is a path not a destination,” and it takes many more months for her to feel she has begun to shake off the shackles of her addiction.

An author’s note at the end is clear that this should not be used as a blueprint for either anorexia or for treating anorexia, and gives some resources for those who are struggling with eating disorders. However, I would still be reluctant to recommend this to any teen girl, as the tone of the majority of the book is triumphant about restricting intake, purging and over-exercising. Even I, as an adult with no particular issue with food, felt quite odd about eating as I was reading this book.

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince

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tomboyTomboy by Liz Prince
Zest, 2014.

Liz Prince always wanted to wear boy’s clothes and take part in activities that boys flocked to, like baseball. She wanted to be a boy, not because she felt she was a boy, but because she felt that boys had all the fun. She had a handful of friends – other tomboys or boys. And she had crushes on boys – mostly unrequited, though not in one rather cruel instance – and sometimes on her friends who were boys, which mostly didn’t work out too well.

But it is only when she starts talking to an older woman, Harley, that she begins to sort out who she is and where she could fit in. Harley asks: “Do you hate girls? Or do you hate the expectations put on girls by society?” – though at the time Liz doesn’t see that there’s a difference to these questions. It’s only later, when she’s reading a zine, that she comes to the realization that she “wasn’t challenging the social norm, [she] was buying into it!” by believing that girls could only be giggling cheerleaders in pink frocks. She has the epiphany that she could be a girl on her own terms, and having made that realization, she can find a community.tomboy_excerpt_panel_v2_blog

Told by the current Liz, who occasionally breaks into the narrative to comment on her younger self, this graphic memoir uses simple line drawings to keep the story moving along, with occasional breaks into diagrams using those international symbols of male and female from bathroom doors, along with mathematical symbols.

As a tomboy myself – not as hardcore as Liz, but not as weedy as the celebrity she calls out – I found this a very sympathetic read. And though the conclusion she comes to, that we should all be accepted for who we want to be, sounds glib on paper, I think we can feel the struggle it was for her to get to that point and actually believe it. I work with teenagers, and I see some of them having the challenges that Liz had to find their place in the world, and I applaud any book that is as honest as this one about the thorny path that can take.