Ally Learning’s first posted book review was for the 2015-16 Great Michigan Read: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Our second book review is on the 2017-18 Great Michigan Read selection: X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon. We are pleased to report that this too will be a positive review. In fact, X: A Novel is a book written for a teenage/young adult audience and therefore appropriate recommended reading for our students. In addition to offering up this initial review, we hope to integrate this novel into future reading programs and book clubs over the next two years. Now, to the review…

[Warning: There are some mild spoilers in the review]

Malcolm of Michigan

The titular “X” in the book’s title refers to Malcolm X*. The “A Novel” part of the title is present because while Malcolm X is a historical figure, this is a fictional adaptation of his early life. The story is told from Malcolm’s (born Malcolm Little) point-of-view as he struggles with family tragedy, adolescence (and young adulthood), and the rampant racism of mid-century America. This being a Great Michigan Read, the connection to our great state is that large sections of the book are set in Lansing, Michigan. Lansing was Malcolm’s home until the age of 15 and the book goes back and forth from his early adult life in Boston, Massachusetts to his childhood in Michigan’s capital. Malcolm’s relationships with his siblings back in Michigan provide insight into what kind of man he would one day become.

*One of the co-authors, Ilysasah Shabazz, is Malcolm X’s daughter.

“We used to be so happy. Even after papa died, when things got hard, nothing was so bad because we were together.” (p. 14).

The Move to Boston

The Malcolm in this novel is simultaneously tragic and heroic. After Malcolm and his siblings are separated by the state he decides to pack his things and move to Boston. It is in Boston where Malcolm abandons the ideals instilled in him by his parents. He prioritizes working odd jobs and partying instead of continuing his education. He changes his hair style, buys fine “Zoots,” learns the street vernacular and earns some extra money by illegal means.

“I can’t go back. I’m only moving forward.” (p. 146)

While Malcolm is having a great time in Boston his siblings grow not only distant geographically, but emotionally as well. They don’t recognize their brother when he writes to them or when he comes back to Lansing for a visit. However, that is Malcolm’s whole point at this stage in his life. He wants to leave his old one in Lansing behind and never look back. He thinks he can run away from his and the world’s problems but he’ll soon realize that that is only a fantasy. One truth that becomes clear throughout the book is that Malcolm is always passionate about whatever he puts his mind to. Malcolm is a heroic character because as determined as he is while walking the wrong path, he is even more determined when he finds the correct path.

Malcolm X

“They are together, and I am alone.” (p. 330).

Eventually Malcolm’s days of crime and partying catch up to him. He finds himself serving a prison sentence. It is when this happens that he learns that he can never fully escape or run from his past. None of us can.  His family have converted to the faith and urge Malcolm to join them. After being mentored by a fellow Muslim inmate he eventually does join the Nation of Islam and adopts the “X” in his name.

X: A Novel tells the story of a boy who will one day become a legendary figure. However, Malcolm’s tale of rebellion and adolescent confusion is not unique. He faces many struggles and challenges that America’s youth, no matter their background, often experience. Therefore, we strongly recommend that students across the state and country read this novel (their parents should read it too). There are references to some adult content throughout the book: some drug use takes place and there is some other language that parents may want to be aware of. These aspects of the story are necessary to tell an authentic story.

In recent years, the Young Adult (YA) category of books has become one of the medium’s most popular “genres.” Although technically the YA “genre” isn’t a genre at all. Young Adult literature includes works in the SF/Fantasy, romance, and historical fiction genres. There are even non-fiction books that earn the distinction of being considered Young Adult.   Young Adult usually encompasses books intended to be read by teenagers. However, increasingly books labeled as YA are not only popular with their target audience but also with adults of all ages. The 2017-18 Great Michigan Read selection is another example of a book that redefines was YA literature can be.


X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon is the Michigan Humanities Council Great Michigan Read for the years 2017-18. It was published in 2015 and has received several awards: Winner of the 2016 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens; A 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book; The Walter Dean Myers Honor Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature.

X: A Novel should be available at most local libraries in the Young Adult fiction section.


Christopher Kwiecien

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