Elizabeth Acevedo, a Dominican-American slam poet has become the first writer of colour to be awarded the UK’s most prestigious children’s book award, the Carnegie medal, which has previously been won by the likes of C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, and Arthur Ransome. She won the coveted award for her debut novel The Poet X.
The verse novel follows a shy young Dominican girl named Xiomara who joins her school’s slam poetry club in Harlem. One of the judges on the panel described it as “a searing, unflinching exploration of culture, family and faith within a truly innovative verse structure.” The character of Xiomara was also highly praised as a protagonist who “comes to life on every page and shows the reader how girls and women can learn to inhabit, and love, their own skin.”
As The Guardian reports, Acevedo dedicated the book to “all the little sisters yearning to see themselves” and was inspired to write it when, as an eighth-grade teacher in Maryland, one of her students named Katherine wouldn’t read any of the books required for the lessons, saying “None of these books are about us.”
Acevedo set out to write a “a story that sounds like and depicts the same kind of neighbourhood” that she and her students live in. “When your body takes up more room than your voice / you are always the target of well-aimed rumors, / which is why I let my knuckles talk for me,” reads an excerpt, “I’ve forced my skin just as thick as I am.”
Describing her main character, Acevedo said: “This was a girl who physically seemed to be taking up so much space but felt she had to be withdrawn, she was afraid to push the boundaries. Her body takes up so much attention it would be easy to forget all the things she’s thinking, things she won’t say. I wanted to be really close to those feelings and show the everyday magic and beauty that quiet folks can hold.”
Though Acevedo no longer teaches, she returns every year to the school and many of her former students, including Katherine, have read her novel. In her acceptance speech, she said: “I felt like this student had given me a challenge, or at least permission to 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.”
The Carnegie medal award was first founded in 1936 and came under fire two years ago when it was found that the longlist for the 2017 award consisted only of white writers. The prize launched an independent review of its historical lack of racial diversity.