Reading the Carnegie: The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo

Reading the Carnegie Shortlist for 2019, it has sometimes seemed – of all the themes you might expect of a children’s literature award – that every book was about death. The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo, is about life. Xiomara is a teenager in Harlem, and this is the story of her coming of age. Her first love, her first sense of ownership and delight in her own body, her first glimpse of the real life going on behind her twin brother’s quiet eyes, and most significantly of all, her first confrontation with her Mami, whose hard-line approach to Christianity makes all of the above dangerous territory for Xiomara. Far from a novel about loss, this takes us through a world increasingly crowded with lives – family members, a potential boyfriend, an inspirational teacher, a watchful pastor, and one close (if somewhat disapproving) ally. Then there are audiences and peers to meet in the brave new world that Xiomara is drawn to explore, despite her fears: the intimidating, energising transformative world of slam poetry. This is a novel pulsing on every page with the lifeblood of its narrator’s voice, and it’s a voice that gathers energy with every fresh episode.

What Twin Be Knowing

As I’m getting ready for sleep, I’m surprised

to see the crumpled poetry club flyer

neatly unfolded and on my bed.

It must have fallen out of my bag.

Without looking up from the computer screen,

Twin says in barely a whisper,

“This world’s been waiting

for your genius a long time.”

My brother is no psychic, no prophet,

But it makes me smile,

This secret hope we share,

that we are both good enough

for each other and maybe the world, too.

But when he goes to brush his teeth,

I tear the flyer into pieces before Mami can find it.

Tuesdays, for the foreseeable future,

belong to church. And any genius I might have

belongs only to me.

Yes, if you’re interested in other themes of the shortlist this year, here’s a stylistic one: Acevedo’s is not just the story of a slam poet in search of her voice, it is told (like Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down and Kwame Alexander’s Rebound) in free verse. In this choice, it distinguishes itself from (2015 Carnegie shortlistee) Apple and Rain, by (2016 winner) Sarah Crossan, whose young protagonist Apple is also learning to explore her emotional landscape through poetry, but which is predominantly related in prose. As with Crossan’s novel, though, the reader is invited to read over the shoulder of the protagonist, seeing the work they each produce for their English Lit teachers as well as their first (and sometimes second and third) drafts: private, confessional, electrifyingly vital. It’s an instantly immersive, engaging device, not only welcoming us into Apple and Xiomara’s heads but also leading us through the process of articulating (and more to the point, self-censoring) that each girl makes as she negotiates what it means to put her life on the page, for herself and others.

The choice to tell the whole of Xiomara’s story in verse makes a world of difference, though, and the nature of its author (as a young woman finding her way as a writer) produces a different effect again from Reynolds’ Long Way Down. It’s almost impossible for the reader of The Poet X to separate Xiomara’s account of events from the poetic reckoning she makes of them in her private notebook.

When Xiomara’s Mami uncovers the notebook, we know exactly what territory she is trespassing on; she has been reading alongside us. Not only outpourings of religious scepticism, of raw sexuality, of angry rebellion, but poems that capture Mami herself on the page, unfolding her history and articulating it for us: the life of a woman who “barely spoke English / and wasn’t born here, / but … didn’t let that stop her / from defending herself / if she got cut in line at the grocery store / or from fighting to get Twin into a genius school”, whose “hands will be scraped raw from work / but she still folds them to pray”. Mami, we know, grew up in the Dominican Republic planning to dedicate herself to God, was pushed into marriage and emigration by her family and has still not forgiven Papi “for making her cheat on Jesus”; she is suspicious even of Xiomara’s attempts to understand her own body (“Good girls don’t wear tampones”). When we arrive at that stand-off, we see that book of poems afresh, realise how incendiary they are and at the same time, how essential to Xiomara. They are a space of private reckoning and comprehension, not only of joy and pain but the world they grow out of, including her mother’s history. There is an urgency to Xiomara’s private words, mirrored by Acevedo’s own intervention in the predominantly white canon of YA literature.

I first read The Poet X last year because of my role at Waterstones: it was a shortlisted title for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. I expected to find it interesting, but was unprepared for how utterly addictive it grew. I read most of it in one sitting, compelled to see how this brilliantly realised heroine – too tall to blend in, too devoted to her family to break away, and too excited by music and poetry to let herself be broken – would make her way through that labyrinth of relationships. (The book’s one flaw for me is that Twin is made real in a few deft strokes, and his story, which poignantly mirror hers, is resolved too quickly and easily – inevitably being secondary to Xiomara’s tale.) Of course, I thought, she would find the strength to perform her work at the slam, but where, and with what compromises? Could she retain both the intimacy and the fighter’s spirit that characterise the novel? Could she protect herself without turning away from this or that relationship? Could she, in every sense, keep it together? In the end, I was reminded me of the themes and approach of my all=time favourite writer, Jeanette Winterson, who made a similar escape to Xiomara and did it through literature too: “I can change the story,” Winterston writes. “I am story.”

I’m thrilled that The Poet X has a place on the Carnegie shortlist: it demonstrates not only how verse can bring a story to life, but also how words can bring us through life: showing what we can be and celebrating who we are.

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