As It Happens

Elizabeth Acevedo wrote The Poet X for young people of colour to see themselves in literature

Elizabeth Acevedo is the first writer of colour to win the prestigious Carnegie Medal children's book prize for her verse novel The Poet X, which she wrote as an English teacher to inspire her Latina students — and one in particular named Katherine.

Acevedo became the 1st woman of colour to win the British Carnegie Medal literary award

Elizabeth Acevedo at the 2019 Audie Awards on March 4, 2019, in New York City. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for the Audio Publisher Association)
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Transcript

Elizabeth Acevedo wrote her award-winning book The Poet X for her students who said they didn't see themselves represented in the books they read in class.

The Dominican-American slam poet and former English teacher's first novel won the CILIP Carnegie Medal, a British literary prize that celebrates books for young readers, for its "searing, unflinching exploration of culture, family and faith."

She's the first writer of colour to win the award, two years after the prize organizers faced criticism for a 20-book long list made up entirely of white authors.

Acevedo spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner about the students who inspired her book, how her experience in poetry influenced her writing process and more. Here is part of their conversation.

In your acceptance speech, you spoke about a former student of yours, Katherine, who really sparked this novel. Tell me about her.

So Katherine was a student who would tell me that she didn't really consider herself a reader. It was incredibly difficult to get her to want to do the 12 minutes of reading we had to do every day in class or to get her interested in the novels that we were discussing.

And when I finally asked her, "What is the book that you want to read?" or, "What kinds of books can I put in front of you?" Her answer was, "The books you put in front of us aren't about us. Where are the books about us?"

And I think that question of what does it mean to be able to verbalize that you want to see yourself in literature — that part of your lack of interest is not in your ability, but is in not seeing yourself and your family and your community reflected — I remember having that feeling as a young person and realized things had not changed in the decade since I had sat in Katherine's seat.

So what was she missing when she read or didn't read these books? What was she missing that she craved?

I think part of it was contemporary stories that deal with Latinx [a gender-neutral term for people of Latin American descent] and black characters in a way that sounds like them, that feels like it is of the culture and made in the direction of these readers…

I think she wanted stories that felt real and honest and unflinching but also tender — right? — that felt like they depicted actual young people of colour.

You talked about "the space [the protagonist] took up; her body and her voice." What is it about the space that was challenging? 

I think when I consider Xiomara Batista, the character in The Poet X, what I mean by space is, she's a character who is voluptuous.

She is a young woman who calls a lot of attention to herself, and it's not always in ways that she knows how to deal with.

Acevedo's debut novel The Poet X won the CILIP Carnegie Medal for its 'searing, unflinching exploration of culture, family and faith.' (HarperTeen, acevedowrites.com)

And I think for a lot of young women when you walk into a space where all eyes go on you and you don't know how to receive that kind of attention, and you're told that attention is your fault, you're told that you should either receive that attention with grace, or you should reject that attention.

But no one really tells you why or how or what it is about your body that creates that kind of tension in the air that that other bodies don't.

There's a there's a line that struck me in your writing: "When your body takes up more room than your voice."

I was a young woman who called a lot of attention when I walked through the world because of my body, right? But no one was really asking me what I thought or felt or the ideas that I had. And so what does it mean to be hyper-visible but also to be invisible in terms of your thoughts, your feelings and your ideas?

I wanted to kind of grab that balance of learning how to be a woman in the world when you are to be silent and looked at and just receive that attention without being able to push back.

You're a slam poet, and this is actually your first novel beyond the verse. How did your experience performing your poetry actually influence the way you approach the book the way you wrote it?

I'm always thinking about audience. I'm thinking about how language makes an impact on the ear, that it's not just what the poem looks like on the page, but what does the language do once it's uttered. And so a lot of what I think is the energy of The Poet X is that every word makes an impact when it's heard out loud: The way that they're strung together the way that the images actually hit the ear.

I edited by reading the entire novel out loud to myself over and over and over, and I think that kind of performance in the revision comes across in the reading.

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC Books. Produced by Alison Broverman and Kate Swoger.