The Poet X: Elizabeth Acevedo's 2018 BGHB Fiction & Poetry Award Speech

I am so honored to be receiving the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. I want to give thanks to my agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, who believed in my voice long before I had much to show for it. And who trusted her gut enough to tell me when certain projects I sent along weren’t ready for the world. I’m so glad she told me, “I love your writing, but this isn’t your breakout novel.” She taught me patience, and The Poet X is here because of that belief.

I want to give thanks to Rosemary Brosnan, my editor at HarperCollins. Rosemary has been so generous in her reading, and she never forced me to other my characters, to italicize the culture out of them, or to curtail my voice. She encourages me to be brave with the stories I tell and how I choose to tell them.

And lastly, I want to give thanks to my husband. There has never been a dream I told him I wanted to follow that he didn’t believe I could and should pursue. I remember how nervous I was to attempt fiction, but he just told me again and again, “You got this.” And that unwavering support made all the difference.

I want to tell you a bit about the impetus for this novel.

I was an eighth-grade English teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland, when I began writing The Poet X. And the impetus came from one of my students, whom I loved. She was slick at the mouth and always had something smart to say, and on the inside I would be laughing even as I had to remind her certain things were inappropriate. But I always appreciated her honesty.

This student did not consider herself a reader. I tried to put every exciting book at the time into her hands, but she had no interest in sparkly vampires or teens playing survival games. Finally I asked her, “What would you like to read?” And her reply took me aback. She said, “None of these books are about us. Where are the books about us?”

So I went out and bought books by Jacqueline Woodson, Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez. Whatever I could get my hands on that seemed to reflect this “us” my student wanted to see: young, urban, characters of color. Within two weeks this student who was not a reader had sped through every book I put in front of her. And then she asked me: “What’s next?”

These two questions guided me toward writing The Poet X. Where are the books about us? What’s next? I felt like this student had given me a challenge, or at least permission to grab the baton. She gave me permission to write a story about young people who take up space, who do not make themselves small, who learn the power of their own words.

I want to close with a poem. Because I think we should have poetry in every room as much as possible, and because I fundamentally believe in Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s words that children’s literature should be a mirror and a window.

This is for us       writers, us readers,          us girls
who never saw ourselves on bookshelves,
but were still writing poems when we talked.

& we been called         teeth-sucking         of snapping eyes
born bitter brittle                                        of tangled tongues
sandpaper that’s been origamied into girls.

Not worthy of being the hero nor the author.

But we were always Medusa’s favorite daughters.
Of serpent curls, of hard-eye looks.
Dreaming in the foreshadows: we composed ourselves.

Since childhood, taking pens to palms
as if we could rewrite the stanzas of lifelines
that tried to tell us we would never amount to much.

And when we were relegated to the margins:
We still danced bachata in the footnotes,
we still clawed our way onto the covers.

Brought our full selves to the page: our every color palette
and bouquet of pansies, of gold hoops, of these here hips
& smart-ass quips & popping bubblegum kisses.

Us girls, who never saw ourselves on bookshelves,
but were still writing tales in the dark.

Us black & brown girls: brick-built:
masters of every metaphor and every metamorphosis:

catch us with fresh manicures
nail-filing down obsidian stones and painstakingly crafting our own
mirrors        & stories        into existence.

From the January/February 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB18.

Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo is the author of The Poet X, winner of the 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction and Poetry Award and National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and Clap When You Land, a 2020 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Fiction and Poetry Honor Book.

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