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.
Mason Buttle broke my heart and put it back together again in The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor. He was the sweetest middle grade protagonist, with a great voice and unusual attributes and conflicts. Despite his difficulties in school, Mason was a beautiful communicator who verbalized complicated feelings and social nuances in a way that will enlighten readers and warm their hearts.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Mason Buttle’s best friend Benny Kilmartin died in the Buttle family orchard a little over a year before the story opens. Mason is a heavyset 7th grader with a major sweating disorder and a lot of learning differences that make him an outcast at school and the perennial victim of relentless neighborhood bullies. This story arc covers his efforts to convince the local policeman that he did not kill Benny, as well as his endeavors to make a new friend in neighbor Calvin Chumsky, avoid the local bullies, and redeem his family’s farm and reputation, among other things. A wonderful subplot covers Mason’s relationship with the neighbors’ dog, whom he dogsits and adores. (Note to dog lovers: bring Kleenex.)
The setting and premise were very realistic and relatable, even as the central issues were unique. Mason’s unconventional family was made up of characters who were sometimes puzzling and mostly warm and who, when the chips were down, came to his aid.
The conflict was unrelenting, though, and by the middle of the book I almost had to put it down because it was so sad and there was no end of sadness in sight. However, I am so happy that I finished the book and enjoyed [MILD SPOILER ALERT!] the redemption of Mason Buttle’s reputation in Merrimack and the cementing of his friendship with the quirky and appealing Calvin Chumsky. The book ends on a high note and my tears dried quickly as I felt very satisfied with the wrap-up.
WHY I READ IT: This was the first book we read in our brand new Middle Grade Book Club here in NYC—made up of writers, teachers, and school librarians—and it was universally acclaimed a winner. (Thanks to author Jackie Davies for the rec!)
WOULD I RECOMMEND IT: Yes! I encourage anyone with younger middle grade readers to buy this book or check it out of a library. Ideally, you would read it aloud to your reader or at least simultaneously, to temper the occasional hopelessness and heartbreak within. Maybe you need two copies!