Betty Before X

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
Betty Before X Book Poster Image
Inspiring, intimate story of activist's early years.

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age 10+
Based on 2 reviews

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Provides intimate portrait of people and events that helped shape Shabazz's life and beliefs. Discusses injustice and work toward civil rights against the backdrop of lynchings and Jim Crow laws in the South and racial tension in Detroit. Discusses the 1943 race riot and the 1948 killing of a black teen figure, and notes at the end provide more information on these incidents as well as the real historical places and people in the book, including Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Housewives' League. Includes references to notable African Americans including Thurgood Marshall, Paul Robeson, Billy Eckstine, and Sarah Vaughan.



Positive Messages

Counting your blessings comforts your heart. Being true to your values makes you stronger and more confident. Speaking up requires courage, which comes more easily with practice. Making the world a better place requires action in addition to faith. Sow goodness and love. Let go of disappointment and forgive others. Don't wallow in misery -- grow from it. Keep sights on long-term goals through short-term disappointments.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Betty finds her voice and learns to cultivate hope and strength even in the midst of bitter disappointment and worry. She's compassionate, driven to help friends and support her neighborhood. When her values cause a rift with a friend, she chooses to be true to herself while mourning -- and never really giving up on -- the broken friendship. The Malloys offer refuge and love to Betty, and Mrs. Malloy especially gives Betty the support and freedom to thrive. She and the Housewives' League demonstrate the power of purposeful collaboration and action, and how to continue working despite obstacles. Betty's close friends are warm and supportive.


Child and caregiver come across lynching victims. References to riots and police killing of black teen. Business owner threatens to call police on activists. Extra content at end of book tells more about the 1943 race riot, the killing of Leon Mosley, and the murder of Malcolm X.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Betty Before X is a fictionalized retelling of Betty Shabazz's middle school years in Detroit as told by her daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz (X: A Novel), and co-author Renée Watson (Piecing Me Together). Betty -- raised Methodist by foster parents -- would go on to marry Malcolm X and raise their children as a single parent after his killing. The book centers on Betty's painful relationship with her mother and how her extended family and foster parents nurtured her strength and principles. Racism and discrimination are strong themes but rarely affect Betty directly in her close-knit community. There are references to riots and the police killing of a black boy, and a very young Betty encounters a lynching with a caregiver who tries to shield her from it. Set in the 1940s, the book uses the language of the time, including "Negro" and "colored."

User Reviews

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Teen, 17 years old Written byoriblack October 8, 2018
Teen, 13 years old Written byhello1855 December 8, 2019

What's the story?

BETTY BEFORE X focuses on Betty Shabazz (born Betty Dean Sanders) during her middle school years in Detroit, a decade before she met her future husband, Malcolm X. At 11, Betty lives with her abusive mother, Ollie Mae, her stepfather, and several siblings. She loves music, candy, and her girlfriends and siblings. After a brutal whipping, she's taken in by Helen and Lorenzo Malloy. She's a leader of the Housewives' League, which urges women to boycott stores that don't hire or respect black people, and he's a self-made businessman. They try to shield Betty from the ugly realities of racism even as they teach her to stand up to injustice and take pride in herself, her heritage, and her community.

Is it any good?

In this moving portrait, Betty Shabazz's daughter shows how courage, resilience, and strength can blossom during a critical period of childhood -- and how those experiences can help shape a movement. Readers don't need to know about Malcolm X's life and legacy to appreciate Betty Before X, which is really about a girl learning to appreciate her own self-worth in a world where her mother's love seems unattainable and her skin color is viewed with disdain outside her close-knit community.

Ilyasah Shabazz and Renée Watson vividly portray a unique time and place that helped forge Betty as a leader with a firm commitment to raising children with love, supporting women and families, and standing strong for justice and dignity. Young Betty's nervousness as she learns to speak up for her values makes her especially relatable to readers at an age when their possible future selves are beginning to come into focus.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about novelization of Betty Shabazz's life as portrayed in Betty Before X. Do you think the blending of fact and fiction helps you better appreciate her story, or would you prefer a fictional character or a more traditional biography?

  • Do you think the adults in Betty's life are right to try to shield her from experiencing the full scope of racism in her community? Do you get frustrated when adults withhold information, or do you appreciate not having to deal with the same concerns they do?

  • How does learning about the childhood of people who became leaders as adults help you understand them better?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories of the struggle for civil rights and social justice

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