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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist: THE POET X by Elizabeth Acevedo

poetxXiomara Batista is the protagonist of THE POET X by Elizabeth Acevedo, a novel that is constructed as her journal and the repository of all of her poetry.  This novel in verse gives us a glimpse into Xiomara’s life at home with her super smart twin brother, her very religious mother, and her distant father.

First, this novel really excels in its characterizations. Xiomara really shines through her poetry. We see her as both a young woman who has created this hard exterior to shield herself from the world as well as a young person who is trying to become her real self and is terrified to be judged by the world around her.  I think we see this really clearly in her poem “Okay?” on page 54:

Twin asks me if I’m okay.

And my arms don’t know

Which one they want to become:

A beckoning hug or falling anvils.

She wants to be soft and warm but doesn’t feel like she can let her guard down to let even her own twin in.

The juxtaposition of her inner thoughts, as conveyed through her poetry, with what she presents to the world really give the reader a complete picture of Xiomara.  More than once she presents a rough draft for an assignment next to the final draft.  In her rough draft she says what she really thinks while in her final draft she presents what the world expects her to think.  I especially love her rough draft on page 126 “Last Paragraphs of My Biography”:

but most importantly,

she should be remembered

as always working to become

the warrior she wanted to be.

I think this novel also really excels at its delineation of theme, especially the theme of shame. Xiomara’s mother has always told her that her body is shameful and the attention that it garners from the men and boys in her neighborhood is her fault.  Her mother even makes her feel ashamed for trying to use tampons when she first menstruates. This shame of her body permeates the story and it is as she begins to see herself through the eyes of Aman and then her poetry group does she begin to realize that maybe there is more to her than just her body.

Xiomara uses her poetry to find a voice for herself that is both strong and emotionally vulnerable. She opens herself up to the judgement of the world around her and is rewarded for it.

Introduction by Courtney

Readers are invited to join the discussion of THE POET X in the comments below. The discussion will be limited to positive comments only at the beginning; broader discussion, which can include negative viewpoints, can be added any time after 12:00 noon (EST).

 

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. SAMUEL LEOPOLD says:

    Excellent introduction Courtney!

    This is an amazing novel!!
    Another novel that connects personally with me this year. I have taught many students over the years who remind me of Xiomara in many ways. And this point emphasizes the distinguished character development writing of Acevedo.I find myself rooting for Xiomara and empathizing with her thoughts and feelings throughout the story. It takes a good writer to get those kind of connections with the readers.

    NOTE:Page numbers are based on an Advanced Reading Copy.

    The themes of the INVISIBLE GIRL and the DISAPPOINTING DAUGHTER make this story genuine and real to the young adults who choose to visit the pages of this book.
    In the “Caridad and I shouldn’t be friends chapter” on page 30, Xiomara says “I should hate Caridad. She’s all my parents want in a daughter.She’s everything I could never be.” In the “Mira,Muchacha” chapter on page 6, she says “Sometimes I want to tell her the only person in this house who isn’t heard is me.” Simple but effective ways of getting us into the heart of the main character.

    The message of the power of self-expression is so relevant for our young adults today. So many students—and adults—feel powerless to overcome the obstacles that have built seemingly unconquerable walls in their worlds. Xiomara shows the strength that can be found in speaking your thoughts freely and finding a group of supporters who listen to ,not just your words, but also to the echoes of your heart. Xiomara is one of the most inspiring, relevant characters in any novel published in 2018.

    I do have Newbery concerns about age appropriateness for parts of this book—-I am sure we will discuss this later—- otherwise, I consider this novel one of the strongest books of the year.

    • Deborah Ford says:

      I also have concerns about the age appropriateness of the book. Certainly, it’s a strong Printz contender. A powerful novel for YA readers. Absolutely it covers new territory- what mom wants and the decision to go behind her back with religion doesn’t trigger any other books in my head. I love the resolution by the minister. He may be my favorite character.

  2. Mary Zdrojewski says:

    This book masterfully weaves together so many issues facing teen girls and deals with them all intertwining. It’s not a book about Xiomara dealing with men’s reactions to her body, it’s not about her struggle in a conservative Catholic household, it’s not about her finding her voice, it’s not about her brother’s sexuality. It’s a book about an authentic girl who lives in a world where all of these are happening at once.
    To be able to juggle all of that and move a plot forward would be impressive in prose. Doing it in beautiful and rhythmic verse is magical.

    • “It’s a book about an authentic girl who lives in a world where all of these are happening at once.” Yes, absolutely! This book is beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful. This was one of two books from this list (LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME being the other) where I found myself writing down so many quotes and passages to keep for myself. If these had been personal copies, I’m sure I would have highlighted much of the book.

    • I agree, Mary. This book is so much more than the sum of its parts. Xiomara’s voice is clear and strong throughout, and I think she provides a meaningful and powerful message to the readers: resiliency, grit, and determination are necessary to living an authentic life.

      And like you, Maura, I jotted down so many captivating lines from this book. My very favorite is “just because your father’s present doesn’t mean he isn’t absent.”

    • Yes to all of the above, Mary, Maura, Joe!
      And LGBT side character rings true-er, yes?

      • For me, the gay secondary character in this book *really* worked. Xavier was fully formed (and his romance was sweet and realistic with the right amount of pathos), and his actions rang true. Acevedo actually developed a character here – he wasn’t a device to advance a plot.

        And I thought the relationship between the twins was really well-developed and felt super-twinny – I say this as a twin myself.

    • I agree, Mary!

  3. Since a couple of HMAC members have mentioned concerns for “Newbery Age” issues — would it be possible for more members to weigh in on this topic?

    • Okay Roxanne, I will be the one to talk about age. (Ugh. I always think I must live in the backwater when I do this.) I read this ages ago and never once thought about it for Newbery. I loved it. I loved that it was sex-positive and an empowering message for girls. But my reality is that book so centered on sexual awakening would be hard sell at most Jr. Highs in my area. I’ve talked with many secondary librarians in our district, and they tell repeated stories of students returning books, with the least bit of swearing or hint of sexual intimacy, as ‘bad books’. Maybe these teens can be mocked for their repressive sensibilities, but they are doing it from a place where they’ve been taught that these discussions should not be casual. As excellent as this book is, I do feel if would exclude a majority of the target age – at least in my bit of geography.

    • Mary Zdrojewski says:

      I struggled with whether to put this in my middle school library, but I decided to add it because I think it will be right for some of my 8th grade readers.
      I think this definitely only hits the very upper end of the acceptable range, but, while it might reach some of that range, I don’t know that it’s intended for even 14. If I had to vote, I would probably vote to exclude it.

  4. Cherylynn5691 says:

    I wanted to ask if anyone else had trouble with the poetry. This was slam poetry and although I loved many of the poems, but I also had a few that I knew that when I read them aloud, I could not figure out how the author would read them. I thought this could be strong as an audiobook read by the author, but I struggled to figure out how to “listen” to the character’s voice.

    • One of my dearest friends and her husband both have MFAs in poetry. While I quite enjoyed this book, my friend had *serious* issues with the book. Her argument, as she boiled it down, was essentially that slam poetry does not translate to the page – at least not in the way that Acevedo did it in Poet X. This didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book, but maybe it doesn’t work for some poets. (To be fair, her husband didn’t weigh in with what he thought – though maybe he didn’t read it.)

      • Is there indicators that all the poems in the book are supposed to be slam poetry? I thought that it has an assortment of poetic forms — some even seems concrete poetry to me.

      • Roxanne, Acevedo’s background is in slam poetry – and this poet friend of mine felt like the poems in THE POET X were attempting to capture the vibe and energy of slam poetry (and, to her, failed miserably).

  5. This is an incredible book. To me, it was easily the strongest writing I read in any book for children this year. Each word is carefully chosen and yet you never feel bogged down by that. I was going to try to pick an excerpt to highlight and I ended up reading like half of it again.

  6. In my opinion, this really isn’t that difficult. It’s a highly introspective narrative told in first person from a teenager (15 years old) who is outside of the Newbery age range (14 years old). It was not written in a way that displays respect for children’s (ages 14 and under) understanding, abilities, and most importantly appreciations because the narrator of the story is not a child as defined by the Newbery Medal terms and criteria.

    That is not a statement on the book’s merits either. Only on its eligibility for the Newbery Medal.

    • I appreciate you starting the discussion based on the rules. If the narrator is outside of the Newbery age range, does that automatically mean it is not Newbery appropriate? We generally accept that kids like to read about protagonists who are older. Why couldn’t she have had 13/14 year olds in mind when she wrote it?

      • To your first question, Kari: not at all. I’m reading TRUMPETER OF KRAKOW right now, and the main character is 15. Johnny Tremain is 15 or 16. Nat Bowditch is an adult for most of CARRY ON, MR. BOWDITCH.

      • These are just the last three Newbery Medal winners I’ve read, which is why they’re on my mind.

    • Mr. H., do you truly believe that many 13/14 year old readers would not understand what’s being portrayed in Poet X.? Or that they would not be interested in the topics: family tension, first love, bodily changes, protection of one’s loved ones, protection of one’s own safety and identity, struggling with parental expectations, etc.?

      • It has nothing to do with that. I don’t think 13/14 year olds were the intended audience. Of course some 13 and 14 year olds will read this and understand it. But that doesn’t mean they were the intended audience. That doesn’t mean Acevedo displayed respect for their understandings and appreciations. If Xiomara was 14 years old, she might not have been exploring some of the things she was exploring, or thinking about some of the things she was thinking about. To answer Kari’s question above, I don’t think age of protagonist necessarily matters, but when the narrative is so introspective as this one is, I think it totally matters.

      • I’m very confused by this argument. Is there something magical that happens on your 15th birthday? Part of the time you’re a freshman you’re 14, the rest of the time you’re 15 (usually). So that seems like the exact same age to me? The fact that she’s 15, rather than the standard 16, indicates to me that it actually is specifically targeted at 13/14 year olds, since as Kari points out, it’s generally assumed kids will read up. It seems the same age as last year’s Piecing Me Together–a younger high schooler, so more designed for actual junior highers than most YA. Aren’t junior highers the ones mostly reading YA in general? I feel like this is where we get into the many, often conflicting, age designations for a book. There’s the intended audience, the marketed audience (12+ or 14+), and then the actual audience (who actually normally reads it). I don’t know which the Newbery means us to look at. I wish they would make that more explicit and preferably put YA just in Printz. But given the current rules, I think this fits.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Katrina, yes, something “magical” happens on your 15th birthday. Per the Newbery Definitions, if you are 15, and if you are the “intended potential audience” for a book, that book is not Newbery-eligible. So it is the intended audience we should be talking about here. I think Jordan makes good points here. 1) The kids-read-up claim doesn’t bring down the intended age. Even referring to it as “kids read up” is basically a statement they are reading books for an older intended age than they are. 2) Start with the “mirror” premise. Occam’s Razor suggests the purest “mirror” experience should be a 15-year-old. Jordan then asks, for this specific book, is there any indication that the book is nevertheless intended for someone younger? He admits, for many books with older characters, there are such indications, but he doesn’t find evidence here. I haven’t read POET X, so I can’t say whether I agree or not, but I do think his approach is a thoughtful and legitimate approach to the age question. There are other approaches, of course.

      • I just want to clarify for Leonard – my perception is that kids generally like to read about protagonists a couple of years older than they are and so it is accepted that those kids are in the audience. I didn’t mean to imply that it isn’t intended for them or that it is subversive – in fact I think that kids reading about older kids is much more standard practice than kids reading about younger kids. I guess I would say that I believe that “kids read up” DOES bring down the intended age.

    • I agree, Mr. H. I fully embrace everything the author is trying to do with this book and loved the reading experience. Xiomara is a complex character and the story was excellent. The book is not intended for children in the age category of the Newbery.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Kari – OK, I muddled various things in the “kids read up” thing. I was folding in situations like the 5th-grade Stephen King reader that Mr. H mentioned. But you were specifically referring to children liking to read children’s books with protagonists a few years older than they were. I guess my answer to that isn’t all that different though: start with the age then look for evidence that the book is intended younger. And yes, the evidence is definitely there for many books. My daughter is 9. Annie from SNOW LANE is 10. Louisiana is 12. But it’s LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME that I am reading to her, and I think that’s fine, because of its fairy-tale narrative style and the directness of its emotions and the indirectness of its darkness. Even the book design suggests “younger.” I am not a library professional, so will defer to y’all, but I would be hesitant to hand SNOW LANE to anyone younger than 10, because of the intensity of Annie’s interior monologue (compared to Louisiana’s) and because of the nature of the book: Annie is the youngest, so her world is dominated by the specific, hard issues of those older than her.

      • I think that is still confusing things a bit. It’s not just that kids like to read up, it’s that publishers and authors assume that kids will only read up and design books accordingly. So it’s rare that you’ll see a protagonist younger than the intended audience. This is why most MG protagonists are 12 and designed for kids 8-12 and most YA protagonists are 16 or 17 and designed for ages 12+. So unless there is some strong evidence otherwise, it is safe to assume that the intended audience is younger than the protagonist. So unless this book is very unusual, the intended audience here has to include 14 year olds.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Hmm, well I am not a writer or publisher so I admit my impulse is to concede on this. On the other hand, I don’t know if I believe this. But in the end I think Roxanne is right—the question is only ever practically settled in the voting, so it becomes sort of a demographic issue. A majority of voters need to think it’s age-eligible (not to mention the most distinguished book) and I think DaNae is correct about that coming down to culture.

      • I am sorry, Leonard and Katrina, I missed that this conversation continued! I apologize for not seeing these comments until now. Katrina represented my thoughts accurately – I am assuming that writers and publishers include younger kids in the intended audience. But I think Leonard is right and it will all come down to the votes! I think we will see POET X end up with a lot of medals on the cover but I am not sure which ones.

      • Agreed, it will be interesting to see which stickers it winds up with! Not to beat a dead horse, but just wanted to mention that on the publisher’s website, they say it’s for ages 13+ : https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062662804/the-poet-x/

  7. Kari, absolutely kids read up in age. I am just sharing that the majority of 13 and 14 year olds in my world would be uncomfortable with this book’s content. Should Newbery show respect for that distinction?

    • I think this is the same question we always have for books that skew higher, and I don’t know for sure the answer.

      I think the picture book discussion made me feel more strongly about being inclusive of these books that skew older, TBH. I truly believe that this is one of the best books of the year. I think on a page-by-page evaluation, there is a strong case it is the best writing of the year. If it is so excellent and its intended audience includes 13/14-year-olds (which I think it does given that we know that kids “read up”), then I think that we have to consider it more strongly than I had been doing in the past.

      When we talk about content concerns for those upper middle school kids, what do we mean? We know that kids those ages have very real feelings and relationships, and some of those relationships are sexual. (This was true lo, those many years ago when I was in middle school, and it continues to be true.) Does the content of a book make it inappropriate for the Newbery? I don’t really see that in the guidelines. Excellence of presentation for children doesn’t have to mean that every kid will like it, right, just that it is distinguished for an audience of this age group. In other places I have seen this discussion framed as, “Parents will just buy the Newbery and then realize it’s not appropriate for their eight-year-old,” but I am not sure that is the (real) committee’s concern. (No one has said that here so I am not trying to call anyone out, but I think we have all seen that argument and understand it to an extent.)

      I wish it was a little bit more clean cut but given the guidelines we have, I feel like being more inclusive is the right way to go.

      I didn’t even nominate this book! hahaha.

      • Agree, Kari. 14 year old me would have loved this book.
        Also, 14 year olds are generally fresh-people and sophomores in high-school. Seems like exactly the topics they’re dealing with.

      • I’ve been sick, so I’m chiming in late, but I agree with Kari that the “border” titles need to appreciated too. Is the potential audience for this book small? Yes. But does it do what it sets out to do for that audience as well, or better, than books with a wider “child” audience? Absolutely. With the exception of Joe’s friend, I don’t see anyone arguing about whether the book is distinguished, only about the age appropriateness. And I do think that it has the sensibilities of 14 year old’s in mind. That’s the year that most students begin their freshman year of high school (at least where I live, but I think starting kindergarten at 5 is pretty standard in the US.)

        Ironically, this is not a book that I think I’d have gravitated to when I was 14 myself, but I know a ton of kids, both those who are kids right now and the people I was friends with way back in the Stone Age when I was a teenager, who would love this book and find it meaningful and life-changing.

      • Returning after a limited reread, spurred on by some of the comments asking what problems readers found with this title. As I stated above, back in long-ago days, when I first read this book, I didn’t once consider it as a Newbery contender. If you’d asked me, before this discussion began, Xiomara’s age I would of made a stab at 18. Overall, while I respected what this book did, the story did not linger. I mostly remembered a girl with quite terrible role models in her parents. There was no chance, outside of purchasing this book for myself, of getting this book in hand today. All three of my Overdrive accounts had it checked out, but I did read the sample provided.

        For sure a strong voice, dropped into a clearly delineated environment. I think the conceit of the poetry journal mostly mirrors THE NIGHT DIARY in the delivery of information. It can’t help but be expository, heavily prejudiced by character holding the pen. It is hard to find nuance. Perhaps I’m bit weary at the moment of character’s who wear their self-pity on their sleeve. (Not that I’m discounting Xiomara’s frustrations with her mother) DiCamillo was much more subtle with Louisiana. We find out by how she talks about food, that she is hungry rather than having her whine about it. I think this shows more of the writer’s craft. Overall, with my limited reread, POET X is a book that I admire more than enjoy. It is no doubt timely, but I don’t see it aging well.

      • DaNae, that’s such an interesting comparison. I hadn’t thought of connecting this and The Night Diary at all, but that’s true that they are both diaries and also both about girls finding their voices. But I think it works really well here. I think one of the reasons The Night Diary doesn’t work is it’s a pretty external story really, so telling it through a diary doesn’t really fit. But Poet X is such an internal story that I thought it worked really well. It’s all about what she’s feeling and how she’s seeing the world, so a diary fits that. I kind of see what you mean that diaries can get inherently talky, although I think the verse-ish-ness of this one cuts down on that somewhat (or at least redirects it/gives it a reason for existing). But I don’t think this book has those expository chunks like the other does in terms of just telling you biographical details and basic facts about her life.

      • Although I suppose part of it is I don’t actually think of this one as a diary even though I suppose it is formatted that way. But since it’s present tense, I just think of it as first person.

      • Katrina, that comment comparing the internal vs external focus of the two diary stories is really helping to shape how I feel about them, and their choices in why they chose that as a format. Thanks for that!

  8. SAMUEL LEOPOLD says:

    I feel that the more intimate parts of this book place it firmly into the PRINTZ category and outside of the age range for Newbery. But……I also said that about a couple silver medal winners from last year. So, it appears the understanding of the criteria may sometimes adapt to the culture in which we live.

  9. As a Committee, some discussion about age-range like this is inevitable. There might not be a consensus — only balloting will tell! I am a firm believer that Newbery would best serve young readers if it offers a wide range of work appropriate for various age groups. When a book as stellar as Poet X comes along and when the content could speak to many 13/14 year olds, I would root for it to the bitter end (until I concede when most of the Committee members show their disagreement with me during the voting process.) The potential of winning other awards should not come into consideration.

    In my Mock Newbery for our faculty members, we gave Poet X an honor :)

    • Do you see any weaknesses in this book, Roxanne? You’ve championed it since the very beginning, and am just curious if you personally find any parts of the book that don’t quite meet the criteria.

    • samuel leopold says:

      Maybe I am just old-fashioned—and I know this seems to contradict my previous statement—- but the chapters where clear details are given about how Xiomara and Aman make out cause me to feel much more comfortable putting this title in the Printz category. In fact, I am part of a Printz discussion group and this title and Hey Kiddo are the two books I am fighting for to win the Gold.

      It is so hard sometimes to know how to keep certain biases from seeping out of my literary cells.

  10. I agree that the writing is strong, although it didn’t really feel like poetry to me (particularly the haikus for some reason, even though I’m sure they follow the technical rules of haiku). I agree the characters are really well-developed and even though a variety of issues are addressed, they are all integrated organically and it doesn’t feel “issue-y” at all.

    It’s a little odd that how she speaks in dialogue is so different from the first person narration.
    The ending is a little abrupt and easily resolved.

    • I just finished rereading it (listened to it this time) and I liked the ending more this time–didn’t feel abrupt this time. Something that it does particularly well is her complicated relationship with church. Good use of religious allusion throughout. The conversations around body and sex and religion probably mean that a lot of the kids that would be scandalized by this book live in the same communities as the kids who would particularly connect to it. Which must make library stocking challenging!

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