The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Harper Teen, 2018.
“My parents probably wanted a girl who would sit in the pews
wearing pretty florals and a soft smile.
They got combat boots and a mouth silent
until it’s sharp as an island machete.”
In this novel in verse, we meet Xiomara, growing up in Harlem the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. She chafes at the restrictions that culture places on her, to be a devout Catholic, to be submissive, to clean the house where her twin brother is given free time. Her parents haven’t shown her affection since she grew large and curvy, and she’s blamed when men hit on her. Her brother, whom she calls Twin because no one else can, goes to a different school and is fighting his own battles. She also gets support from her best friend Caridad, and there is a sweet but definitely not trouble-free romance with a boy from chemistry class, Aman.
That romance – definitely forbidden by a mother who has forbidden dating – is a strong impetus for Xiomara to look outside the boundaries that were already chafing her. But just as important is Xiomara’s English teacher, who learned how to pronounce her name ahead of time, praises her writing and encourages her to join the poetry slam club. We really see just how little of herself Xiomara is willing to share when we see side-by-side essays on school topics, one for herself full of questioning, secrets, pain, and the subdued ones, answering the same question but usually on entirely different subjects, that she actually turns in. It’s honest and beautiful, with a hopeful but believable ending. I cried real tears.