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X: A Novel

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.

About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.


  1. Mary Lou White says:

    I was a teenager in the 60’s, and I remember that the name invoke Malcolm X invoked fear in us white people. He was no bridge builder like MLK who invited all of us to join him in creating racial justice. So, I grew up with a very negative impression Malcolm X. It wasn’t until Spike Lee’s amazing movie was about to be released that I finally read his autobiography. It was a revelation! Who could not sympathize with his hatred, his unwillingness to make nice with white people? I find it most inspiring that, having found a kind of salvation through the Nation of Islam, that he was willing to confront honestly how the practice of his religion was not in line with core values of Islam. As a deeply religious person myself, I know how difficult it can be to examine the deficiencies in your church and church leadership, and even more so for him from his position of leadership. His courage was astounding. Ever since reading his autobiography, he has been one of my biggest heroes. All of that is to say, that while I enjoyed this book, and it has increased my appreciation of the man, I was disappointed that it stopped when it did. How can you tell his story without telling it all??? I wish the authors had compressed the telling of his youth so that they were able to give young readers the full story. I think one of the reasons I enjoyed it is that I DO know what happens next, so I appreciated the opportunity to delve more deeply this part of his life. I agree that it dragged a little, and bottom line for me, it just felt incomplete. Volume 2 please!

  2. I agree with you it meanders too much and is just plain tedious. Malcolm did this bad thing, Malcolm wore this set of clothes, Malcolm drank this much, Malcolm got fired from another job. Put together we get the picture why it was a miracle he became the person he became but it took so long to make the case. For this reason, we didn’t include it on our Mock Printz reading list. It might be a Printz contender but it is not a favorite.

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      That’s interesting. I wonder if other Mock Printz groups will also follow that logic. In the scope of the year, I don’t think it’s the strongest or weakest book out there so it’s hard for me to place it among the rest of the titles.

  3. Brenda Martin says:

    This is a very good book in many ways. I didn’t have some of the pacing problems that you had but I did struggle some with the fictionalized biography, especially with one of the authors being so close to Malcolm X. I wondered too often what was true and what was fiction. And it could be particularly difficult for those on the RC who have read or know his autobiography.

  4. Karyn Silverman says:

    The thing that really strikes me about X is that the thing every reader I know has said — and this comes up in so many of the reviews as well — is that this is an important book, because it’s a book about an important person. But the meat of the conversation is never about the book itself, and instead the focus is the way the novel deepens our understanding of Malcolm X — in fact, I would say that despite the “a novel” subtitle, most readers seem to think of this as more biography than novel. Would this book have equal depth and thematic scope if we didn’t know the rest of the story? Does it rely too heavily on the reader’s knowledge? I would argue that it does, and that’s what makes it unlikely to make it through RealCommittee conversation and into the winner’s circle. This is compounded by the questions of what exactly is fiction or fictionalized that Brenda raises.

  5. Ingrid Sum says:

    I agree with the pacing issues. I kept trying to force myself to read it, or putting it away for other books. And I know that a book being well-paced or easily readable isn’t a Printz requirement, but I kept saying to myself, “I have to read this book” and then not reading it. I ended up reading the afterward and the biographical information in the back.

  6. I didn’t have the pacing issues others have expressed; in fact, I recall feeling that I was on a wild and jazzy ride, one that I found compelling and exhilarating. On my blog after reading it I wrote, “Shabazz and Magoon do a remarkable job generating atmosphere, balancing family love in the face of dire circumstances against the pulsating energy of a self-assured young man swaggering through Harlem streets in a fine zoot suit and a conk.”

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