Famous People Who Need A YA Backstory

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Alison Peters

Staff Writer

Alison Peters surrounds herself with books, green things, animals and love. A Creative Writing M.F.A. holder with a day job that shall not be named, Alison is also working on a Masters in Library and Information Science. Currently cohabitating with her partner in the Northernmost outpost of San Francisco’s East Bay, she spends her spare time exercising her big dog so he won’t get annoyed with her, reading everything she can get her hands on, and then writing about it all. If you’re ever interested in discussing Harry Potter, Alison re-reads the series at least once a year, so drop her a line.

In the spirit of Black History is not just a month-long event, with a side of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, you need to know about X: A Novel.

Star Wars Episode 1 Ad, Young VaderRemember way back before the Star Wars prequels all came out, there was an ad for Episode 1, with a troubled looking Anakin walking through the desert, his only companion the Vader shadow menacingly following him? Yeah, this one. It made me shiver, imagining what this young boy was to become, what life would put him through to make him the adult we recognize from later movies.

 X: A Novel is that image applied to the life of Malcolm X. Not in a Vader/X are evil, and here’s how they got there way, but in that it tells the backstory of a man we already have an image, and an opinion, of. It provides breadth and fills in some blanks. It creates a living, walking, breathing character. X: A Novel is a young adult story, lovingly and unflinchingly written by Ilyasah Shabazz, one of Malcolm’s daughters. It’s about the life of the man who would one day be The Malcolm X, but is currently just young Malcolm Little from Lansing Michigan: it’s 1937, and his father was killed in a streetcar accident under shady circumstances (How is someone killed by a streetcar?, one of the characters eventually asks: He could hear the thing coming and move!).

When we meet the family of nine, Malcolm and his seven siblings are being torn from their mother’s home and spread out amongst different foster care families. It’s a basic, sick, divide and conquer tactic aimed at a family with ties to Marcus Garvey, definitely dangerous lest they start putting ideas into other people’s heads about black folks being human, just like everyone else. Malcolm is eventually sent to live with his older half-sister in Boston; on the the journey from South to North he has the pleasure of viewing strange fruit for the first time, swaying in the breeze from a tree along the way, and his life is forever altered. Eschewing the placid society life his sister has adopted, Malcolm ventures down the Hill to the Roxbury, to get a feel for what life is really like in the streets, and eventually high tails it to the bright lights of big city New York. And then the story that you might remember from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (or the movie version) kicks in.

But here’s how good the book is at getting you into young Malcolm’s mind and story: halfway through reading I found myself worrying, really worrying, about where Malcolm was headed, and praying that he’d make it out of New York alive. Did you get that? I wondered if young Malcolm Little, whom I got to know as a revolutionary African American grown-ass man, made it to adulthood, after becoming so enraptured with his story I honestly didn’t even stop to breathe, to remember I already know what happens next. And through the story you get glimpses of the man Malcolm X will become, understand where the heart of ‘by any means necessary’ was born, realize that this is just one more example of a man trying to do right for his community, in a world that doesn’t really understand the struggle, and frankly, sometimes doesn’t really care.

So it got me thinking, if this one book could transform how I understand one of my own beloved historical figures, who else could benefit from the YA book treatment? I’m not talking historical fiction, per se: I want to read about these people’s rough high school years, their crushes, dating frenzies and “the first time,” witness their heartbreaks, get to know their friends and family, their lessons learned. To ruminate, from the benefit of young adult perspective, on why this person turned out to be the adult they are.

A few of those I’d like to see:

Bill Clinton & George W. Bush: Yes, together in one book. Just imagine this one, also written by their children: two big egos with completely different backstories come together at, let’s say, the high school national Debate Team finals. Hijinks, misunderstandings, interactions with all the other crazy family members, lots of beer, and finally acceptance of each other just as they are, ensue. It’s like the lovechild of Huck Finn & Gossip Girl & Romeo and Juliet (for the Montague/Capulet drama). Maybe young Hillary makes an appearance! There could be a special summer edition where Bill visits George out on the ranch! The cover has the two of them standing back to back, arms crossed, all Perfect Strangers! I’d read it.

Sacajawea. There’s not much reliable, accurate information about the daughter of a Shoshone tribal leader, and translator on the Lewis and Clark expedition, making her young life that much more intriguing. What we do know is that, in Idaho in 1800, when she was about twelve, Sacajawea and several other girls were kidnapped and taken captive to another native village; at thirteen, she was made the wife of Toussaint Charbonneau, and while on the famed expedition, gave birth to his son. But what was her life like prior to that? Did she run free with the other children, learn from the tribal women, have a best friend she was torn from when kidnapped? A crush? She was good at picking out edible food along the expedition and a good swimmer; she was also a young mother raising a son in a group of strangers, and the only woman in the expedition. What was she like??

Che Guevara. Before The Motorcycle Diaries, young Che was a) a chess player extraordinaire, and b) an excellent athlete who was nicknamed “Fuser” for his aggressive style of rugby play. (Imagine just for a moment, someone called out for aggressiveness in rugby….) This YA novel would be like Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, all lush and lyrical and filled with appearances by famous authors, Spanish Civil War Veterans, shadowy politicians, and would have to feature a doomed love story, perhaps a triangle. It would give background to the rise of another historical superstar, and bring some more normalcy to the legendary man.


Shel Silverstein. The man behind The Giving Tree and some of my favorite childhood poems was quite tall and muscular, went to and was kicked out of performing arts high school, was in the military, wrote plays and musical scores, and was famous for his adult cartoons (a stint with Playboy!) before the children’s stuff most of us know him for. That’s the Shel I want to get to know. The moody, world traveling writer and cartoonist with a flair for stories that make you feel things; who’s said that if he’d been able to play sports and attract girls, we might never have had our beloved artist.

Mindy Kaling. This one sounds silly, but I bet Mindy Kaling’s YA novel would be a bestseller, spawning a whole series, like Sweet Valley High for the millennials. Kaling grew up in Cambridge, MA and went to a private, swanky high school. I imagine her YA novel to be a version of her TV shows: funny, sweet, interestingly documenting the eccentrics of people around Kaling, as well as Kaling herself as she matures into a comic writer. And there’d have to be a musical involved somehow.

Cleopatra. I’ll end here, with a daughter of the Greek-speaking Ptolemaic dynasty, born to a Pharaoh father and unknown mother, with family who married their children to each other to jointly rule Egypt. Yes, she was beautiful. But she was also intelligent, calculating, strong, and her rule, and the men she was with, are the stuff of legend. But how did she get that way? How was she raised, and with whom, and what did she see in her young life that formed Cleopatra the woman? What events in her youth allowed her to ascend, at age 18, to the throne and rule Egypt?


That’s just a handful of people off the top of my head. Have you read X: A Novel? Whose backstory would you like to see depicted in a young adult novel?