It appears that novels in verse are now the rage (at least for me), and it’s a good rage (as opposed to the other rage I’ve been feeling lately.)
I just finished the dazzling debut YA novel:
by Elizabeth Acevedo, longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
In another life, Ms. Acevedo is a poet, like the novel’s narrator, Xiomara, also known as “X.”
“The summer is made for stoop-sitting
and since it’s the last week before school starts,
Harlem is opening its eyes to September.”
When I hit the third line, I lingered the way people do in the heat of the dog days of summer. Then I kept reading, and settled into the place that X calls home.
In X’s neighborhood (like so many places in this world), boys feel free to comment on a girl’s body, a body that is “unhide-able.” A body that gets unwelcome attention from everyone, including her parents. Other girls think X is conceited, but it’s just that she has few words she’s willing to share with anyone. Why should she when she has a mother, Mami, who talks over her so much that X thinks:
“…the only person in this house
who isn’t heard is me.”
Turns out, X’s trouble started with her name.
“It means: One who is ready for war.”
“Mami says she thought it was a saint’s name.
Gave me this gift of battle and now curses
how well I live up to it.”
X was born a fighter, while her twin brother, Xavier, was gifted a gentle soul. He’s the science genius, the altar boy. The one who likes church.
She’s the questioner—of God, her parents, her life.
X shuns boys, until a certain one catches her eye, listens to her words, becomes her obsession, and then lets her down.
Mami thinks that religion will save X from boys and sin. X will be the pious girl Mami wanted to be, married to Jesus instead married to a man, like a business deal. To this end, she’s determined that X be confirmed in the Catholic Church.
“This year, Mami has filled out the forms,
signed me up, and marched me to church
before I can tell her that Jesus feels like a friend
I’ve had my whole childhood
who has suddenly become brand-new;
who invites himself over too often, who texts me too much.
A friend I just don’t think I need anymore.”
And we are only on page 10. Although there are several other conflict threads woven throughout, the tension provided by this central mother-daughter war builds throughout the novel, sending Mami and X to an extremely dark place. And Acevedo delivers the showdown and resolution with spell-binding intensity, one that will break the heart of writers everywhere.
X ends up successfully navigating the land mines of high school relationships, eventually finding her crowd and her poet’s voice, the voice that illuminates her world, makes us see and understand her perspective, and root for her to win her battles, for she is truly a fierce warrior.
Elizabeth Acevedo, “The Poet X”
HarperTeen / HarperCollins Publishers, 2018
Other recommended novels in verse: Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (MG/YA) proved to be gloriously beautiful, poignant, and timely. It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and a Newbery Honor. I wrote about it here. Then Kwame Alexander won the Newbery Award for The Crossover (MG), a lyrical book with a basketball beat that hooks readers and nonreaders alike. And one of the first children’s novels in verse that I recall reading, Inside Out and Back Again (MG), by Thanhha Lai, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and Newbery Honor Book. It’s about a young Vietnamese refugee girl and her family’s transition to living in Alabama. I also enjoyed Forget Me Not (MG) by Ellie Terry, a book that helps kids understand life from the perspective of a girl with Tourette Syndrome and an unreliable mother. At times humorous, it’s an honest and moving story about friendship and acceptance.