Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz collaborated with young adult author Kekla Magoon on a historical fiction novel about the civil rights leader’s formative years. Fifty years after his assassination, this title celebrates the power of transformation, roots, and the unity. SLJ caught up with the pair to discuss their writing process, inspiration, and the lasting impact of Malcolm’s legacy.
How did your collaboration come about? And what was your writing process like?
I: Jason, my agent, and I were looking at a lot of different authors to collaborate with, and we came across Kekla’s The Rock and the River (S. & S., 2009). Based on the themes in her books and the quality of her work, we thought she would be an excellent contributor.
K: I was so excited to be considered for such an interesting project. It’s a dream come true. We initially spoke about Ilyasah’s vision for the novel in terms of its impact for future readers. I listened to the story she wanted to tell and her perspective on her father’s life. The story was already there. Based on a those conversations and notes, I was able to help bring that project to fruition. It came together from the moment we started talking. We put together the first draft and kept polishing it until it was ready.
How did you go about your research for this historical fiction novel?
I: This story was already inside of me. It came from the stories shared by my mother throughout my childhood and the information I collected from my aunts and uncles when I was doing research on Growing Up X (Random, 2002). I spoke to a lot of people who worked with my father. Listening to the impact that my father left on so many people was overwhelming and emotional but very informative.
K: There’s a lot more to Malcolm than people know. For me it was interesting to study how he became who he was. I reread The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Ilyasah’s book. And I read titles that she recommended—books that weren’t sensationalized and inaccurate. In his own writings and speeches, he emphasized that he didn’t come from nowhere. He went through trials, tribulations, struggles, and doubts. For me it was really interesting to get to the individual behind the legacy.
Ilyasah, you’ve written extensively about your father, from nonfiction to picture books. What inspired you to write about him in this format (novel) and for this age group (teens)?
I: My father’s life served as a source of inspiration. Most people don’t realize he was so young. When the world first heard of him he was only in his 20s. I thought it was important to focus on his teen years, because he’s made an impact on so many young people all over the world. Teens think he made these significant impacts as an old man. But they don’t realize that he was just like them. He was able to turn the challenges that he endured and into something great.
This look at Malcolm X’s teen years examines both his upbringing by loving parents who instilled in their children a sense of Black Pride and his first encounters with crime and racism. Why did you think it was important to showcase all parts of his youth—the positive and the negative?
I: I thought it was important to showcase who Malcolm was, starting from his roots. All of us start off as a child influenced by our parents. When my father’s parents were no longer in his life, he struggled. But he was able to find his own individual power. I want teens to understand that if they find obstacles in their path, they should listen to the little voice inside that encourages them to keep going.
K: The idea was to tell the true story of his childhood and what he went through to become the person who is celebrated today. His parents were activists. He had this legacy within his family. And he was pulled from that from the forces of the world. His father was murdered, and his mother was institutionalized for being a proud black woman. He spent his teen years running from that but eventually found his way back. He finally became the person he was meant and raised to be. He fought against the forces of racism to return to that. Malcolm wanted to inspire other people to find their own strength.
As we approach the anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination, the current state of civil rights issues in our country seem all too familiar. How do you think children’s and teen lit can help change that? Where do you see your novel in that conversation?
I: The novel is definitely in that conversation. I feel so proud to see young people standing up against the injustice to stand up and say that “All lives matter.” They’re following in the footsteps of those who came before them. I think books are can give rise to empowerment. I believe this novel is very relative to what is continuing to occur in our and other nations. The struggle never ended, and it is often the role of young people to keep the movement going. That’s what makes my father relevant even today. Until we have a serious discussion, this problem [racism] will continue to occur.
K: Reading YA novels is often a way to open up dialogue around these issues for teens but through the lens of someone else. It shows them that these issues have been around for a long time. They can discuss their own experiences of police brutality and racism [or] struggles being a person of color or feeling lost and scared. One of the great things about this particular book is that the character is a real person. He’s a person that teens can look to in many ways, translating his example into the real world as evidence of their own potential can be.
With the We Need Diverse Books movement gaining momentum, what do you hope children’s publishing might look like in five years?
I: That’s it’s indicative of all genders, creeds, ethnicities. I hope that everyone can look in a book and see themselves in it—not just one group of people or one standard of beauty. Because telling a one-sided story doesn’t allow for others to have self-love.
K: We need a whole bunch of books about people of color, kids on the spectrum, etc. It’s strange that we have a population of school children that is majority nonwhite but their books are majority white. We need heroes of color in all different genres. It’s also valuable for white readers to be able to meet people in books that are different than themselves. That can be a way of expanding their minds and experiences.