Today is author and poet Elizabeth Acevedo’s 34th birthday. She is the author of 3 young adult novels, is featured in several anthologies, and an audiobook narrator for her own novels in verse.
Acevedo was born on this day in 1988 in Harlem, New York. Her parents immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic. She was raised as a devout Catholic, and though she no longer practices the religion, her faith and her experiences feature prominently in her novels. As a teen, Acevedo first aspired to be a rapper, then realized her passion for performing poetry after working with an influential teacher. She attended George Washington University and the University of Maryland, where she earned her BA in a self designed degree and an MFA in Creative Writing. She went on to teach 8th grade, but noticed that her students struggled with reading because they did not see themselves in any of the characters in their books.
So she wrote a book for them.
Her debut book was The Poet X, a novel in verse about Xiomara Batista, a teenage girl growing up in Harlem. She is struggling with her mother’s expectations of her regarding religion, her sexuality as she develops feelings for a fellow classmate, and her body, as she develops and learns to defend herself against unwanted attention. Xiomara expresses herself best in her poetry, and we read the words of her heart on the pages of this award winning novel. The Poet X is the recipient of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Literature, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Pura Belpre Award, among several others. She has since written two more novels, With the Fire on High and Clap When You Land, both of which have also won a slew of awards.
This last fall brought about a barrage of book challenges to books discussing race, gender, and sexuality. Authors of color, including Acevedo, feature prominently in the list of banned and challenged titles. In Virginia, the New Kent school district pulled The Poet X from its library shelves after a parent complained of the sexualization of Xiomara in the novel. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, Clap When You Land received a temporary ban because of explicit sexual content, because the main character, Yahaira, is sexually assault on the New York subway. Earlier in 2021, another family filed a lawsuit against Lake Norman Charter School for teaching The Poet X. The parents cited that because Xiomara is a Christian and questions her faith, the school is disparaging against one particular faith by teaching this particular book. The court found in favor of the school district, the ruling stating that the school was not promoting an antireligious message.
It’s ironic that the parental complaints against these books are precisely the reason these stories are so important. Acevedo, when asked in an interview with VIBE which parts of The Poet X were biographical, responded:
“Being a young woman who had to walk through a city where I was continuously sexualized and objectified, and had to feel fear of my body while also encountering my sexuality, trying to figure out how do I express this but also protect it.”
Young women, particularly women of color, experience being sexualized every day. They often feel powerless in the face of such harassment. Young women need stories like Xiomara’s and Yahaira’s to help them understand they are not alone in their experiences. Young people need avenues to help them process experiences of sexuality, faith, relationships, and finding their way in the world. Young adult books help them to do so, especially young adult books featuring characters of varied race, gender, sexuality, faith, and family backgrounds. When schools choose to incorporate these books in their curriculum, it is not to condemn those whose life experiences differ from them. It is to highlight characters and people who for so long have not seen themselves on the pages of their books. It is to say to these students, “We see you, and we value you and your experiences in this school.”
In response to challenges against The Poet X, fellow Latinx author Meg Medina succinctly describes why we need young adult novels:
“Novels for teens can range in tone and topic as widely as teens vary themselves. Often, we find main characters who are questioning society and what they have been taught. The characters push boundaries and face daunting obstacles as they evolve into the people they want to become. They often make risky, hair-raising choices and face unexpected consequences. This, my friends, reflects the messy and often heartbreaking process of growing up.”
Thank you to Elizabeth Acevedo for breathing life into these women who question society, push boundaries, and vehemently fight to become the women they want to be.
Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Acevedo!
Rebecca holds an MLIS from the University of North Texas and is a former teacher and school library consultant. Though not currently working in a library, she continues to fight against censorship and advocate for intellectual freedom rights, especially for children’s literature. When she’s not wrangling her three children, Rebecca enjoys reading, running, writing, and roaming the world.