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X book coverX: A Novel, Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon
Candlewick Press, January 2015
Reviewed from final copy

X: A Novel made the NBA longlist and is one of five YA novels to receive six stars this year. (For reference, the other titles are: Challenger DeepThe Tightrope Walkers, Goodbye Stranger, and The Boys Who Challenged Hitler. All except Goodbye Stranger were on our initial list, and we’re likely to review Rebecca Stead’s latest because of its crossover appeal.) The praise has been effusive for this fictional account of Malcolm X’s life as a teenager. Words such as, “powerful” and “important” have been used liberally and appropriately as X arrives at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is a fixture in the national conversation and we strive to honestly examine race and racism in our country.

X is important and timely because it’s the story of a black teen who makes mistakes as he struggles against society’s expectations and the crushing effects of racism, which meet him everywhere. Just as Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down demonstrated the complexity in understanding an individual’s life after they’re gone, X shows that even great people who faced adversity can be flawed. We are witness to his coming of age as a directionless teen, sometimes more concerned with the things that were right in front of him over the life he could build for himself. In a book that will be a mirror for many readers, this is an especially important story.

Furthermore, the novel dramatizes a struggle that Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about in Between the World and Me. Written as a letter to his son he writes, that “you are human and you will make mistakes. … You will drink too much. You will hang out with people you shouldn’t. … But the price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen.” Coates also writes about the destruction of the black body in America as “heritage;” the black body as the very foundation on which this country was built. Shabazz and Magoon are working through similar ideas and themes by the end of the novel. On the last page they write, “All the wrongs of the world may come. The noose. Every force that thirsts for the destruction of the black man in America.” Malcolm was not only human and flawed like all of us, he lived with the burden of higher stakes because he was black. This is a significant note on which to end the novel given the context of our world now, where people still think that “all lives matter,” is an appropriate response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and where some people still think that there are already plenty of diverse books for young people.

As thought provoking as it is—and revisiting the book certainly allowed me to engage with these ideas more deeply—the pacing really undoes X. It’s too labored and the structure doesn’t convey the urgency of a man who’s running from the legacy of his father, an idea that is heavily underlined throughout. Unable to feel the trajectory of Malcolm’s life, it’s very hard to engage with his journey, as it seems to meander. Back matter includes an author’s note from Shabazz, a family tree, a timeline, and historical context. In some ways, the straight facts made it easier for me connect with the text (although I’m sure that’s more about me as a reader than the book itself).

It’s highly likely that this is a book that will receive careful attention from the RealCommittee, so I’m really interested to hear more voices in this conversation. Beyond the thematic richness, what else is exemplary about this work? Am I being fussy about the pacing? Let’s work it out together in the comments.


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