Renée Watson is the author, with Ilyasah Shabazz, of Betty Before X, a new novel for kids about the childhood of civil rights activist and educator Betty Shabazz, the mother of Ilyasah Shabazz and wife of Malcolm X. Watson's other books include the award-winning young adult novel Piecing Me Together and the picture book Harlem's Little Blackbird. She lives in New York City.
Q: How did you and Ilyasah Shabazz end up collaborating on this book about the childhood of her mother, Betty Shabazz?
A: Ilyasah and her agent reached out to me and asked me if I’d like to be a part of the project. I was so honored to even be considered. The more I learned about Betty’s early life, the more I wanted to work with Ilyasah to tell Betty’s story.
Q: What sort of research did you need to do to write the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?
A: There isn’t much written about Betty’s childhood, so most of my research was talking with Ilyasah and interviewing one of Betty’s sisters.
I also interviewed people who lived in Detroit in the 1940s. Listening to their stories really shaped the book and gave me insight into the daily life and experiences of people living in Detroit. I also relied on magazines, music, and advertisements from the 1940s to help me get a sense of what the culture was like in terms of style, popular music, and products people were using.
Q: The book is based on Betty Shabazz's life, but is fictionalized. What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction?
A: Every scene in the book is tied to a truth. For example, I don’t know if Betty actually saw a lynching but I do know that during her childhood, lynchings were happening in Georgia. It was my responsibility as a writer to tie in these larger truths of what was happening around Betty and paint a full picture of not only her personal life, but the circumstances she was living in.
Ilyasah and I were told Betty loved to dance and that she enjoyed baking cookies with her friends and looking through magazines. We really wanted to show Betty having fun and enjoying her childhood even though the backdrop is a nation divided and a city adjusting to life after the war.
Keeping all of this in mind, I tried to have a balance of giving historical context but always personalizing it and thinking about how the outside world impacts Betty’s internal world.
In terms of developing Betty as a character, as I listened to people describe how Betty was as an adult, I made a list of her character traits: generous, forgiving, never resentful, nurturer, loyal. It was my responsibility to find ways for these traits to resonate in the book.
I really believe the seeds planted in our childhoods bloom into our adulthood so I had to develop scenes that showed the early beginnings of the woman we know as an icon.
Q: What do you hope young readers take away from the book?
A: I hope readers finish the book knowing that activism can look many ways and that they can use their talents and time to make a difference and stand up for what they believe in.
In the book, we see Paul Robeson using music and speeches as a way to fight injustice, we see the Housewives League volunteering their time, educating their community and making demands to get policies changed.
There are many ways to be a leader and get involved at any age. I hope young readers realize that and take action in their own way.
I also hope that by reading Betty’s story, young readers are encouraged and know that even if there is great sadness and loss in their life, there can be hope and joy. Our hardships don’t have to limit us, or hold us back.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just finished co-writing a book with my good friend, and poet, Ellen Hagan. It’s called Write Like a Girl and is about two friends who start a feminist blog at their school that goes viral and causes their school community to rethink what it truly means to support girls and their voices. It will be out in 2019, published by Bloomsbury.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb