The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo
While awards are only one indicator of the potential of any given literary work, when a novel wins the Michael L Printz Award and the Pura Belpré Award from the American Library Association, as well as the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, it’s a pretty good bet that it is going to be a good read.
What I wasn’t ready for was just how good this one is.
Xiomara Batista is a 15 year old first generation Dominican American girl who lives in modern day Harlem. Bombarded by the traditional expectations of her devoutly religious mother and the attention her maturing body attracts from the males in her neighborhood, she feels both ignored and unable to hide, angry, retreating instead into the poems that she sequesters away in her journal.
When a supportive teacher coaxes Xio to a spoken word club, and then local poetry slams, she discovers that her poems are more than simply words on a page – they are her voice, and they are powerful. But this newfound sense of self, along with an unexpected attraction to a boy in one of her classes, sets up a family conflict that threatens to rip her world apart.
Written entirely in verse, this book – Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut novel – is extremely effective. The lyrical voice of Xio takes us intimately into not only her thoughts, but her feelings, and they are achingly beautiful:
I am the baby fat that settled into D-cups and swinging hips
so that the boys who called me a whale in middle school
now ask me to send them pictures of myself in a thong.
The other girls call me conceited. Ho. Thot. Fast.
When your body takes up more room than your voice
you are always the target of well-aimed rumors,
which is why I let my knuckles talk for me.
Which is why I learned to shrug when my name was replaced by insults.
I’ve forced my skin to be just as thick as I am.
The poems are short, pointed, cutting right to the heart of Xio’s pain, her joy, her confusion, her fear. The other characters in her world – not only her religious mother and remote father, but her brainy twin brother, her best friend since childhood, the boy who delights and disappoints her, the kindred spirits in the poetry club – all come into sharp yet tensile focus.
While much of Young Adult lit strives for some kind of originality in its confusion and conflict surrounding sexuality, relationships, and the transition between childhood and becoming an adult, The Poet X is able to address these issues with a freshness and both artful and contemporary. True to its source, genuine in its voice, compelling and heartbreaking, The Poet X is more than just the sum of its awards – it’s a masterful work of art.
A voracious reader who loves to share her thoughts on all things wordy, Sharon Browning has been a contributor at LitStack for eight years, including penning the weekly feature Gimbling in the Wabe from 2012 to 2017. She is happiest when sitting on her porch in Minneapolis, Minnesota with a good book in hand, a cup of coffee nearby and her golden retriever at her feet.