It’s a miracle I’m alive to tell you about “Betty Before X.” I listened to it as an audiobook, flying south on Connecticut’s winding Merritt parkway in the dark, well over the speed limit, with tears pouring down my face.
ABOUT THE BOOK: This wonderful historical retelling of the life of Betty Dean Sanders (later the wife of Malcom X, among MANY other achievements) is heart-warming, shocking, sad, and funny. I loved it because it offered the domestic and peer-centric warmth of a middle grade novel while simultaneously imparting a great deal of biographical and historical information. Like the proverbial spoonful of sugar, it helps the medicine of the early years of the civil rights movement go down. Written by one of Betty’s daughters, Ilyasah Shabazz—along with powerhouse novelist Renée Watson—it is well-structured, pacey and beautifully told.
Betty Dean Sanders was a person of great strength and character, even from a young age, and readers will find much to be inspired by in this book. Like most middle graders, she had a smashing mix of fearlessness and vulnerability, and here it is writ large against many circumstances beyond her control.
Bounced around from one household to another, Betty ultimately chooses new parents for herself as a tween, and then models herself on their brave, charitable, upstanding characters. It is a great choice by Betty, and one that lands her squarely in the lap of the beginnings of Detroit’s civil rights movement. Her rise as an activist was inevitable, based on her character, but it was her foster parents who guided her to her cause.
Though the story is lightly fictionalized to make it flow, the end of the book has twenty pages of actual historical information (including a timeline) that give readers the facts. They also make it useful for research, reference, and in-school use.
WHY I READ IT: This was a pick in my middle grade book club but I’d been meaning to read something by Renée Watson for a while. I will now eagerly look into her other work.
WOULD I RECOMMEND IT: Wholeheartedly yes, and especially for schools and libraries.