Monthly Archives: February 2015

X: A Novel, by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon

X A NovelWhen Malcolm Little was only six years old, his father, a Baptist minister, was beaten and killed by white men in Lansing, Michigan, who later reported that he had fallen onto a streetcar track. His smart and determined mother continued to teach her eight children stories of the heritage of their people in Africa, until Social Services came to tear her little ones out of her arms and drag her to a mental institution, “not a unique occurrence for strong, independent women at the time.”* Malcolm was fourteen when this happened, and his younger siblings were separated and sent to several foster homes. Since Malcolm had been a troublesome child, he had already been sent to a foster home by himself. Within a year, Malcolm made a trip to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella, which became a turning point in his young life.

Malcolm was a very intelligent child and a good student, yet when he confided to his teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up, the man told him to be realistic and aim to be a carpenter or something else that was achievable for a black man. Shortly after this, during the bus ride to Boston, Malcolm saw a black lynching victim hanging from a tree in rural Pennsylvania. Convinced that no effort on his part could change his hopeless future, Malcolm rejected his sister’s good advice, quit school, and started spending time with the criminal element in the lower parts of Boston. During a stint as a refreshments salesman on the railroad, he visited Harlem and fell in love with jazz and the underworld of the 1940s. By the time he was twenty-one, Malcolm and a friend were convicted of breaking and entering and sent to prison. While in prison, his brothers persuaded him to join them in their conversion to Islam, and Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X, a change that erased his ancestors’ slave-owners’ surname and stood in for the tribal name that his family no longer knew.

The prison years of 1946-1952 are where the action of this story ends. The author, Malcolm’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, says that she wrote this fictionalized biography “because I believe that accurate information about him and his life’s journey will empower others—especially those fatherless children searching for their purpose and their identity—to achieve their highest potential.”*

Since I have been studying Islam lately, when I read the many starred reviews of this book, I realized that an inquiry into the Nation of Islam in the U.S. could be related. After all, I had never understood why people of African descent in North America would think that Islam was a religion better suited to them than Christianity, since Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed had all come from the Middle East. I had always read about civil rights struggles from the Southern perspective, and many of the leaders of that movement were, like Malcolm X’s father, Christian ministers. Furthermore, Mohammed describes himself in the Qur’an as the prophet to the Arabic-speaking people. Shabazz clears up this mystery in the notes section in the back of the book when she states that many of the slaves that were taken to America had been kidnapped from Muslim countries in western Africa, so the converts to Nation of Islam (NOI) felt that they were returning to their roots. Aha!

Malcolm Little/ Malcolm X/ El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

As far as this novel empowering young people, I have my qualms. None of Malcolm X’s later work is evident in this story of his childhood and adolescence. Before he turns eighteen, Malcolm has dropped out of school, spent most of his time drunk or high on drugs, sold drugs, hustled and cheated, stolen, and broken into houses. He is unfaithful to a lovely young girl, but sleeps with a less reputable—and later, married—woman over several years. As a matter of fact, it is this white woman who eventually gives the testimony that leads to Malcolm and his friend’s conviction. Shabazz says in her “Historical Context” notes in the back: “When Malcolm went to prison in 1946, he became just one among a vast population of despairing, often hopeless, black prisoners…. [T]he disproportionate imprisonment and sentencing of blacks are phenomena that continue today.”* I am not arguing with her conclusion, but I don’t think her father’s teen years are an example of inappropriate imprisonment and sentencing. It’s surprising that he hadn’t been caught years earlier! He was a criminal, after all.

As a defense of a young man who went astray because of the horrific conditions of the culture and of his life in particular, this novel works. This child of high intelligence and lofty ideals was beaten down at every turn until he had no hope for the future. The virtuous people he knew were being killed by a system he couldn’t defeat, and the most successful individuals he met were living in an alternate world that he was smart enough to manipulate to his benefit—at least for a while. Furthermore, if he had not had all of these experiences and even prison time, he would not have been molded into the future charismatic leader who became so famous.

Although this was an emotional and riveting read, if it were not for the extensive back matter, I’m not sure that a teenager who had never heard of Malcolm X would be positively influenced by it. Used in conjunction with a classroom unit on the civil rights era, it would be more effective. The novel did lead me to more research online, though, as I realized that my knowledge of the civil rights movement was seen almost exclusively from the Southern actors and events. Along with most Americans, I had come to admire Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the non-violent, passive resistance that he had learned from Mahatma Gandhi. Malcolm X did not agree with Reverend King, however, and the title of a biography about him uses his quote as its title: By Any Means Necessary. His views on interracial relationships in the U.S. were startlingly different from those of the civil rights leaders most of us learn about as a child, and I encourage you to take a look, if you have a big blank spot in your education here, as I did.

I do wish Ms. Shabazz had paginated the very informative 28 pages of notes, timelines, and bibliography in the back of the book. They were very helpful, and, for reasons outlined above, essential to the understanding of the work. Lots to think about.


*Taken from the “Historical Context” section in the unpaginated section in the back.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are—believe me— solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Shine On!

2015-02-07 17.32.11Last week, we went to my mother’s house in South Carolina, where most of my family was gathering to visit with my brother from New Jersey. We had all the usual family activities planned: playing bridge, walking my sister’s beloved dogs, and eating huge meals. Within the last year, though, a new business has opened up in Lexington that just demanded our attention: The Moonlight Distillery. Yes, makers of moonshine, that hitherto illegal brew tucked into a wooded holler and guarded from revenuers by shotgun. Despite its checkered past, however, legitimate moonshine distilleries are becoming quite au courant, at least in the South. Since we have such a close connection to this one— my sister’s next-door neighbor’s son’s wife’s parents own it—we had to have a look-see. And maybe more than a look.

2015-02-07 17.16.53Have you ever seen such a happy group of people? And we hadn’t even gone inside yet! It must have been the anticipation of tastiness that had my extended family looking so gleeful. That and the fact that we’d all been singing Earth, Wind, and Fire songs at the top of our lungs on the way over. We quickly discovered that we didn’t actually know the words, so we just faked it until we got to the brilliant chorus: “Ba-de-ya! Dancing in September! Ba-de-ya!” What in the world does that mean, anyway?

Once inside, and after license checks all around (even my white-bearded, 66-year-old brother), the owners poured out teeny tastes of all their many flavors for the whole crew. The most amazing, to me, was the Apple Pie flavor. It didn’t just taste like apple, it tasted like apple pie. My brother liked the blackberry, but brought home the Twisted Cinnamon for his daughter, since she loves spice. We bought a Fuzzy Peach, although I’m sure it has way more sugar in it than I should have. We haven’t opened it, but later we did taste some of my sister’s batch mixed with diet ginger ale. Yum! I can imagine this concoction in the summer with lots of ice and a mint sprig. We had received the plain moonshine for Christmas and I can attest that it is very good without extra flavors. Kind of on the idea of vodka, but with a hint of a sweet flavor that I can’t quite place.

The Moonlight Distillery website is under construction, and I have a feeling that you can’t buy it online. State laws, perhaps? Anyhow, you can ask your local establishment to get it for you. In the meantime, the website now boasts its first few recipes that look absolutely delectable. And just to prove that moonshine and moonlight lead to good things, here is what we saw written on an old loading dock door just outside of the distillery:

2015-02-07 17.33.45

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All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeWerner and his sister live in an orphanage in the 1930s in a small German town where they put their white heads together late at night and secretly listen to the radio that Werner has pieced together out of the odds and ends he’s found on scavenging jaunts in the area. They love to listen to the old professor teach them about science and the wonders of the universe. As the neighbors begin to learn about Werner’s mechanical genius, he has opportunities to repair all different kinds of radios. Although he loves to learn, he knows that when he reaches his dreaded 15th birthday, he will go into the mines where his father was killed, and he will be fated to work underground for the rest of his life, just like all the other boys in his town. His world changes the night a German officer calls for him to repair his beautiful radio, even though several professional repairmen have failed. When Werner is successful, the officer arranges for him to go to a boarding school for boys who will be special soldiers in Hitler’s army.

Marie-Laure and her father live in Paris, where her father is the master locksmith for the Museum of Natural Sciences.  Although Marie-Laure loses her eyesight when she is six, her father encourages her to be independent and curious, never giving in to her disability. He brings her books to read in Braille and builds a scale model of their area of Paris, perfect in every tiny detail, so that she can memorize her surroundings and find her way to and from anywhere. She is fascinated by the museum, particularly by the treasure that rests behind many locks: a blue jewel with fire in its heart. Does it really carry the curse of legend?

The swirl of world events causes Marie-Laure and Werner to leave their familiar homes and go out into strange places, and Doerr tells their tales in alternating chapters. They are both intelligent young people with family and friends who love them, but in the end, it is their strength of character that determines the choices they make throughout trials that most of us living in peacetime never have to face. The reader knows from the very first chapter that they end up—separately— on a French island that is under a bombing assault from American forces, but their journey to that place and time is slowly revealed over the course of the novel.

When I first heard about All the Light We Cannot See, I said, “Oh, no. Not another World War II book.” Later, when I started hearing rave reviews and then it became a National Book Award finalist, I had to put my name on the holds list at number 179! This is an adult novel, but last month it won an Alex Award, which means that it also has great crossover appeal for teens—if they can get past the 544 page count. The writing is extremely detailed, particularly in Marie-Laure’s chapters, as the reader needs to be able to experience the world through the tiny clues that she receives through her ears and her fingers. I had to tell myself to slow down and soak it in. It’s well worth it. Both protagonists are heartbreakingly brave, and the plot development and ending are not at all predictable. This is a work of great beauty, love, and sorrow, and I am so glad that I made room for yet another World War II book.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Musings on the 2015 Youth Media Awards


Since I have been under the weather, I watched the ALA Youth Media Awards presentation at home on my laptop, clapping and exclaiming all by myself, except when my husband wandered into the room occasionally. I did not intentionally read for the awards this year, but as a collection development librarian, I was familiar with all of them and had read a good portion of the contenders, so of course I had some opinions.

CrossoverMy overriding thought is: “Oh, I am so glad I blogged a review of The Crossover just two days before it won the Newbery award!” My friend is the leader of a Mock Newbery Club, and this is one of her favorites, which is the main reason why I would ever read a sports novel in verse at all. Good job, Martha. Crossover also won a Coretta Scott King honor. My second thought on the Newbery Award is that the ALSC needs to have a big conversation on updating the Newbery Committee’s guidelines on the use of illustration, since El Deafo, a graphic novel, won a Newbery honor. I am delighted to see this very worthy book win an award, but I don’t think anyone else considered it seriously because it really is dependent on the illustrations, which conflicts with the Newbery Award definition. An important conversation to have.

RightIn other happy surprises, the Sibert Award went to a picture book! The Right Word was a favorite of mine, partly because it is about the thesaurus. Who wouldn’t love that? It is adorable and extremely informative, which is what the Sibert is all about! On the other hand, I did expect The Family Romanov to win more than just a Sibert honor. No Printz? No Newbery?

The Adventures of Beekle would not have been my choice for Caldecott, but my fellow librarian / blogger, Kerri, and her little daughter beg to differ at Noisy Paint BoxThe Caldecott committee went crazy this year with six honor books! Some of my favorites among them are Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, The Noisy Paint Box (a picture book about the artist Kandinsky), and, again, The Right Word. They even chose a graphic novel for older children called This One Summer! Glad to see graphic novels being celebrated for literary excellence, and the publisher, First Second, is a slam-dunk choice for great graphic titles.

Grasshopper Jungle, the startlingly brilliant book that I mentioned in my Reading Roundup (that we all devoured but hesitated to hand to a child), won a Printz honor, and well deserved, too. This One Summer also won a Printz honor in addition to its Caldecott honor.

TruckI don’t usually wait for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for Lifetime Achievement with bated breath, but any mother of boys loves Donald Crews: Truck, Freight Train, and so many others. Mr. Crews has provided us with hours of enjoyment when my son was young, and I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve handed his books to library patrons.

Alex Awards are given for adult books that would appeal to teens. There are ten each year, and I am currently reading one: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (review soon, but I can tell you it’s gorgeous). The other one that I clapped for was The Martian, by Andy Weir, which was fantastic and will soon be a movie!

Ava LavenderMy biggest disappointment was that I felt that The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender did not get enough love. It was a Morris (debut award) finalist, but I thought it should have at least received a Printz honor. Well, there’s always next year for Leslye Walton. Also, although I was glad to see Rain Reign, by Ann Martin, win a Schneider Family Award for books concerning disabilities, I would have liked to have seen more decorations on that cover.

Lastly, though, how are they going to fit all those medals on the cover of Brown Girl Dreaming? Will we still be able to read the title? Congratulations to Jacqueline Woodson on writing such a beautiful memoir. If you haven’t yet, go out and get this one for yourself and your kids.

For all of the winners, go to

Now to 2016! I’ve already started reading!

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Youth Media Award logo from:

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