My favorite reading challenge for 2014 is Kid Lit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. Visit Alyson’s blog to find out about more great nonfiction picture books.
I first learned about Ilyasah Shabazz’s picture book biography of her father, Malcolm X, at The Brown Bookshelf, a terrific blog promoting diverse literature for children and young adults. Every February, The Brown Bookshelf celebrates Black History Month by featuring a different African-American writer or illustrator each day on its blog. I bought Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X after reading The Brown Bookshelf’s feature on Shabazz, and it’s a worthy addition to every classroom library.
In Shabazz’s story, we meet Malcolm X as a little boy. More than anything, the story is a tribute to Shabazz’s grandparents, who created a strong, loving home for their eight children. Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, a minister, was an inspiring speaker and activist whose beliefs made him a target of white supremacists. One of Malcolm’s early memories was of his house burning down–the fire started by whites. Malcolm’s mother, Louise, is an equally strong character. One of my favorite passages in the book describes Louise’s accomplishments and parenting style:
She could bake biscuits while discussing philosophy, sweep the floor while reciting poetry, and teach math while pruning the garden. With one hand she would tend to the linens, and in the other she would hold an open book, and Malcolm and his siblings would listen on as she enthusiastically taught them one of the alphabets of the five different languages that she spoke fluently. Malcolm especially loved the sounds of the letters in French and hearing the elegant intonation of this sumptuous language–words that to him always sounded like they were somehow dressed up.
This passage also gives you a taste of the writing style. There can be moments of great beauty and surprise in the writing (I love the description of French as “somehow dressed up”). It is a fairly densely written and very text-heavy book. Lots of description, lengthy sentences, abstract concepts, complex vocabulary. At times, I wished the writing had been streamlined a bit. Sometimes writing less is actually more powerful. But this is Shabazz’s style, and it does work for the story. This would be a book to go through a page or two at a time with younger children, stopping to explain and discuss, or to share with older readers. It’s one that I would consider using even with high school students.
Malcolm’s father was killed by white supremacists, and his family was dispersed after the state declared his mother unfit. The story turns quite sad at that point, as Malcolm struggles with grief and isolation. The book ends with love and hope, however–values that Malcolm had learned from his parents and would teach to his own children.
No knowledge of Malcolm X is really needed to appreciate this story of an African-American boy growing up and discovering himself, but the larger import and meaning will be lost on readers who aren’t already familiar with him as a civil rights leader. Although Shabazz makes connections between Malcolm’s childhood experiences and the great civil rights leader he became, she fully focuses on her father’s childhood. Only a reader already familiar with Malcolm X’s life and career can see the seeds that were planted in his childhood. This would be a terrific book to read early in a study of Malcolm X’s work as an introduction and then to return to later on to trace how those seeds were planted.
Shabazz is extremely successful in sharing a different side of her father. Most adults will be familiar with the famous image of Malcolm X making a speech with his fist raised and finger pointed. Most photographs of him depict a very serious man. In Shabazz’s story, Malcolm is always a little boy: small, vulnerable, fun-loving, wide-eyed with curiosity about the world. This isn’t entirely the Malcolm X we think we know.
AG Ford’s illustrations add considerable appeal to this story.
There is a long Author’s Note at the back, explaining why Shabazz decided to write this story and where she found her material (through interviews and conversations with family members as well as through her father’s autobiography and letters).