YALSA 2016 HUB Challenge: X; The War That Saved My Life

In less than two weeks, the 2016 YALSA Hub Challenge comes to an end, and, just in time, we’ll be putting our toes across the finish line (21/25 books completed!).  And, since we’re almost done with the reading part, for the next few weeks, we’ll be spending some time here at “Half-Way” catching up on our reviewing.

After all, the point of the Hub Challenge is not just to expose its participants to the ‘latest and greatest’ of middle grade and YA fiction, but to encourage those participants (many of whom, like myself, are librarians or teachers or parents) to share their opinions on what worked/didn’t work with other potential readers.

Pursuant to that goal, this week, we share our feelings on two historical fiction novels: X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon and The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.


X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

“It makes me want to pound him, for real this time.  Him and everyone like him, the lucky sons of guns who slide through life like they’re greased.”

“My cheek stings, and the ache of it vibrates beyond the hand print.  A thin layer of pain across every inch of my body, as if I can feel the very color of my skin.”

Definitely geared more towards older teens (see the ‘trigger warnings’ below to get a better picture of the kinds of content you should be aware of when recommending X to younger readers), X: A Novel is an emotionally raw and gritty depiction of America on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement.

The narrative is compelling and the fast-paced plot keeps one reading, but if the goal of the novel is to put a sympathetic face to Malcolm X’s radical image (and how could it not be, at least partially, with Malcolm’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz writing it), there it fails.

The transition Malcolm makes from deadbeat, drug-dealing, womanizing thug to Gentleman Scholar is unrealistically abrupt.  The novel, in fact, ends before any of Malcolm X’s more famous civil rights activism even takes place.

Five to ten pages from the end of the novel, Malcolm bemoans the possibility that his story will end with him being put in jail (where he is imprisoned for a burglary):

They want to write a story about me that ends behind bars.  They’ll say I was no good, that I always belonged here — it just took a while for it all to catch up to me.

But, ironically, the novel literally does end with this jail scene . . . and, as a reader who entered with very little background knowledge on the historical realities of Malcolm X’s life, I certainly did finish with the impression of Malcolm as anti-hero at best . . .  rather than hero.

With the notable exception of the editorial end-papers (written in first person by Shabazz), which give some historical details to reassure the reader that Malcolm’s story does not end with his criminal actions, there is nothing in the novel itself that succeeds in contradicting the sentiment of un-likability that here pervades Malcolm’s character.

Overall, I’m mostly confused as to if the message that I was supposed to take away from X: A Novel was (a), that even the most delinquent can be redeemed through the passion of activism or (b), that all heroes have a ‘dark side’ . . . that doesn’t diminish their overall positive societal impact.

Perhaps Shabazz is still trying to work that one out for herself.

Assassinated when Shabazz was only two years old, Malcolm X never got the chance to tell his story first-hand to his third daughter.  And X is not Shabazz’s first written exploration of that story (she has also written Growing Up X, a personal memoir of her experience growing up as Malcolm X’s daughter, and Malcolm Little, a picture book biography of her father’s earliest years).

Regardless of how one leaves X: A Novel feeling about Malcolm X, I believe that all readers will leave with a profound respect for Shabazz’s own bravery and willingness to expose such a personal, familial narrative to the general public . . . trusting her readers to draw their own conclusions.

Read-a-likes:  My Name’s Not Friday by Jon Walter; Crow by Barbara Wright

Trigger warnings:  Racial slurs/epithets, graphic depictions of sexuality, strong language, lynching/racially-motivated violence, (vague) allusions to sexual assault/rape, (heavy) drug use

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The audio-book (which won the 2016 ALA Odyssey Award) is brilliantly read (those accents!) by Jayne Entwistle but, since I couldn’t always wait for my daily drive to get my fix of this novel, I also read parts of The War That Saved My Life in e-book format.{88FD0BB9-078A-4BAB-A0B3-A580D2C8D4CE}Img400

Somehow Christmas was making me feel jumpy inside. All this talk about being together and being happy and celebrating—it felt threatening. Like I shouldn’t be part of it. Like I wasn’t allowed. And Susan wanted me to be happy, which was scarier still.

As someone who works with and loves children, reading the passages which highlight Ada’s emotional and physical abuse was a visceral, painful experience.  For this reason, and not because of any particularly inappropriate or overly graphic content, when recommending this to a younger reader, I would make sure that there was a caretaker/parent willing and available to help the reader process some of the more heady emotions that The War That Saved My Life will no doubt elicit.

How did I feel? I had no idea. I didn’t know the words to explain. I was choking and now I could breathe.

The novel has been compared to Room in the sense that it features a child (suffering from the mental anguish of PTSD) who, by virtue of his/her abuse, has little understanding of the wider world and must slowly come to the difficult realization that his/her family structure was not normal, not healthy . . . and, most crucially, to the belief in and hope for a different kind of life.

And, not that the novel didn’t have enough to recommend it already, but I simply can’t say enough about the marvelous depiction of GLBTQ+ characters and alternative families in this book.

To any but the most ignorant adult reader, Susan’s lesbianism is readily apparent (any reviewer who doesn’t mention it is automatically on my bad side!), but Susan is neither textually ‘out’ nor is her relationship with a live-in ‘friend’ (who has died by the time the novel takes place) questioned/commented upon by the narrator, Ada, or any of the townspeople the reader encounters.

While some may take issue with this relative invisibility of Susan’s sexuality, I contend that the way in which Brubaker Bradley handles the topic is right on target.

Not only would any discussion of GLBTQ+ sexuality be absolutely taboo during the historical period in which the novel is set, but what the younger audience for whom The War That Saved My Life is intended needs (in this humble librarian’s opinion) is the normalization of these kinds of sexualities . . . not political polemics (no matter how positive or well-intentioned).

Though there is room for novels which explicitly champion GLBTQ+ identity (especially in a world where, somehow, this is not yet self-evident to all human beings), there is just as much call for fiction that is created in the image of a hopeful future . . . where these kinds of people, not wholly defined by their sexual identity, will be as remarkable or unremarkable as their actions make them.

(For more on this topic, take the time reading Brubaker Bradley’s hilarious take-down of this so-called ‘touch of lesbianism’).

I’m conflicted about the announcement that there will be a sequel to The War That Saved My Life.  As an adult reader, I am likely more comfortable with ambiguous endings than a middle-grade reader (who tends to love series and gravitate towards that format), but I stand by my assertion that this novel (and its happy ending!) more powerfully stands alone.

Read-a-likes:  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak; Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

Trigger warnings:  Graphic depictions of disability, ableism/ableist slurs, war-related violence/death

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