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Author Elizabeth Acevedo on writing a coming-of-age novel


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight, our Now Read This book club conversation.

Our November pick was "The Poet X," a coming-of-age novel written in verse by Elizabeth Acevedo.

Jeffrey Brown talks with her for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Elizabeth Acevedo: How do you fix this shipwrecked history of hair, the true meaning of stranded, when tresses hug tight like African cousins in ship bellies?

Jeffrey Brown: As a teenager in New York City, Elizabeth Acevedo found her voice through poetry, first writing it and then guided by dedicated teachers at open mics and public slam competitions. In 2014, she won a national title.

When she later worked as a middle school teacher, she wanted to share her passion with young students. That became her impetus for her 2018 debut novel, "The Poet X."

Elizabeth Acevedo: I was an eighth grade English teacher in Prince George's. I had about 150 young people in my space.

And I realized that I had grown up loving poetry, loving performance poetry, and that they didn't have a reference point for that.

Here's this thing I love that I think is really cool. Can I figure out a way to package this for young people? And that was the initial impetus.

Jeffrey Brown: You write a novel in verse about a very specific place and time and age.

Elizabeth Acevedo: It is a coming-of-age story set in Harlem about a young woman who is Dominican-American who wants to be a poet, but she's a secret poet.

She's in a really religious household. There's a fraught situation with, what does it mean to take up space with what you believe, not just with your physical presence?

Jeffrey Brown: Why a novel in verse? I mean, why that form? Why did that make most sense?

Elizabeth Acevedo: It didn't make sense.


Elizabeth Acevedo: It didn't make sense at all. It's a really difficult thing to, I think, pull off well. You're trying to hold 350 pieces of poetry and see if they can link.

And trying to figure out the form was probably the most difficult thing.

Here's a character who has all of these secret feelings, and I wanted people to see her.

Jeffrey Brown: There's a passage when she says -- and I will just read it -- "We're different, this poet and I, in looks, in body, in background. But I don't feel so different when I listen to her. I feel heard."

It seems that this is something that perhaps happened to you, yourself?

Elizabeth Acevedo: When I was young, I had an amazing teacher named Abby Lublin when I was in high school who snuck me to open mics.

And it was pivotal to me to see real live art and real people who were making a living out of art and to believe that it was possible to say certain truths and be OK, right, that there was no shame in saying certain things out loud.

And I think seeing women and women of color on a stage in front of audiences just being proud and brave was really inspiring.

Jeffrey Brown: You have been a real strong advocate for greater representation in young adult literature. Has that world changed? What have you seen happen?

Elizabeth Acevedo: I think it's changing. And I think there's a lot more folks coming forward.

We have Julian Randall, who has both a poetry collection and is coming out with a middle grade novel. We have Yesenia Montilla, who is an incredible poet. We have Naima Coster, whose novel "Halsey Street" was incredible, a Kirkus Prize nominee, and she's coming out with another book called "What's Mine and Yours."

I think we're seeing a rich moment. I'm still pushing and hoping that publishers are always considering the second book and the career of writers, not just the debut.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, we're going to continue this conversation online for now.

Our November book pick is "The Poet X."

Elizabeth Acevedo, thank you very much.

Elizabeth Acevedo: Thanks, Jeffrey.

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