Elizabeth Acevedo has just been awarded the 2019 Carnegie Medal for her debut verse novel, The Poet X.
Writing both poetry and fiction, Elizabeth is a renowned slam poet and is also the winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, The Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction, the Boston Globe-Hornbook Award Prize for Best Children’s Fiction, and the Pura Belpré Award for a work that best affirms the Latinx cultural experience.
We caught up with her about The Poet X.
What made you choose to write The Poet X in verse format?
Writing requires me to learn what the book needs and how I need to accommodate my writing to tell the story clearly. I aim to find the character’s voice and let that be the chief concern: is this character real, and do they sound like themselves in every passage? Xiomara is a character who doesn’t speak much and so I knew the novel would be largely in her interiority. I also wanted to subvert the expectation that when a girl is big, and gruff, and angry, that also means she can’t have beautiful and complex thoughts and language at her disposal.
How important is it for readers to have a character that they can relate to?
I often quote the scholar and educator Dr. Rudine Sims Bishops who posits that books for young people should be mirrors and windows: opportunities into experiences similar to their own, and also opportunities to see a reality unlike what they know. That said seeing yourself reminds you you are worthy, that you too can be the protagonist of your own life story. iI affirms your existence is not in the margins. And I think it’s important to realize you can relate to characters you may not have thought you had much in common with. I don’t think I saw many Afro-Latinx characters in books when I was growing up. I was lucky to find Latina characters at all. I also don’t think I knew that that’s what I wanted: books that had protagonists like me and like the people in my neighborhood. I just thought we existed outside of books.
Did you have an inspirational teacher like Ms. Galiano?
I was lucky to have had many inspirational teachers throughout my life and to have taught alongside inspirational educators when I was a middle school teacher. My acknowledgements in the novel pays homage to a few of them.
What are the key messages you hope readers will take away from reading The Poet X?
I hope readers will get a gentle—and sometimes not so gentle— message that facing our hurts and naming them is important to growth. I hope readers will feel braver, more willing to be bold and take up space, if only for a moment, because of what they read in The Poet X.
Who was your favourite character to write?
I loved writing Twin! His tenderness, intellect, and nerd self made his character so rich to explore.