Book Review: The Poet X-Elizabeth Acevedo

I read The Poet X in less than three hours.

I was in our school library for three periods in a row, because at the beginning of the quarter, I try to take all my students to find the books they will use for their independent reading. After we get book talks from our awesome librarian and the students browse, we sit down and read. I picked up The Poet X idly, and COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. I was completely shooketh at the beauty of the language, the complexity of the characters, and the driving force of a plot so rooted in completely relatable experiences of both joyous and deeply painful girlhood for women of color. The entire novel is written in verse, and every single piece is lovely in its own right. Here’s my review :

Exposition, no spoilers: Xiomara Batista is a Dominican American teenager living in Harlem, NYC with her family. She feels greatly restricted by the strict, traditional upbringing that is embodied by her relationship with her mother, and strives to express herself via her newfound love for creating and performing poetry, despite the obstacles that stand in her way.

Major Characters: The book centers around Xiomara, and it is told through her narrative perspective. Xiomara represents a solid self-awareness of the perceptions that will be held about her as a curvy, Dominican American girl. Honestly, Xiomara might just be one of my favorite protagonists of all time. She is as sharp as a tack, insightful, self-aware, and unexpectedly hilarious. 

Xiomara has a twin brother, Xavier, whose quiet support of her budding personal journey eventually steps aside to reveal his own self-discovery.

Xiomara’s parents are traditional Dominican immigrants, who hold the hopes and dreams of America’s promise within their children. They are drawn well, because it would be far too easy to villainize them. Acevedo is much savvier than that, and we are left with some finely drawn, humane portrayals of the immigrant parent.

Themes: One of the major themes in the book is centered around the power of language and personal expression. Xiomara struggles to find ways to express herself in a world that often silences her. 

Another theme that is tackled here is the act of resisting traditional values, or those norms that have been placed upon you by nature of your identity. Xiomara is sharply critical (in her inner thoughts, at least) of sexual norms, religion, gender roles, and the list goes on and on. It’s interesting to note the moments where she chooses to voice these criticisms aloud vs. when she chooses to keep the critique to herself.

Black Girl Goggles and Review: Overall, I would give this book a 5/5. Acevedo’s use of sparse, carefully selected language hits you right in the gut in a beautiful way. The characters are fully developed, and the plot zips right along in a decidedly grounded way. There are no plot twists here for the sake of plot twists, but instead, a celebration of the tragedies and triumphs that are faced by our young heroine.

Putting on my black girl goggles….Xiomara may be Afro-Latina, but I don’t believe that was completely clear, so I’m not going to make the assumption. Nevertheless, all of the mentions of black women in the text are nothing less than complimentary and admiring. Indeed, one of the first moments that Xiomara realizes that she can utilize poetry to broadcast her voice to the world is when her teacher, Ms. Galiano, shows the class a spoken word piece by a black woman.

Xiomara responds with this particular quote: “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.

There’s a beautiful lesson in solidarity there. That while we should not seek to collapse our experiences as women of color, we can still acknowledge the power in raising our collective and distinct voices.

I also think that young black girls can benefit from the explorations into body image positivity that go on in this text, as well as watching and learning from the way Xiomara navigates a world that is often unfriendly to her very image as a young woman of color. Her quiet, but strong resistance of respectability politics feels like a useful and timely lesson.

Teacher Tips/Discussion ?’s: This would be an excellent book to add to your Lit Circles, with a focus on the theme of one’s personal journey or discovering one’s own identity. Students of all identities would enjoy this text, but I think it would truly be a special treat for young women of color. Honestly there are hardly any red flags here, because the descriptions of a young, budding sexuality are so clear without being exploitative. I could also see this being read as a marvelous read-aloud, in companion with a unit on poetry/spoken word. Again, each of the poems are quite beautiful on their own. 

I want to spend more time thinking through the novel before making any more specific recommendations and perhaps creating some resources, but for now, I will leave you with a few questions suitable for sparking discussion with any type of group (a book club or a class) and the page number that inspired this question. I’ve also created a TeachersPayTeachers resource with additional questions that you can download here for $1: (Discussion Questions-Handout on TPT) 

  • What do we learn about gender roles in the Batista household? Are they fluid or rigid? (pg. 42)
  • What evidence can be found to support the idea that Xiomara is finding sexual agency? (pg. 146)
  • How does Xiomara resist the messages sent to her about her body being “trouble?” How could this serve as a model for developing one’s own body positivity? (pg. 151)
  • How might you describe the friendship dynamic between Xiomara and Caridad? Do you feel this portrayal is realistic? Why or why not? (pg. 170)
  • How might we view Mami’s narrative in “Mami Says” as both a critique of toxic masculinity and reinforcement of sexual respectability politics? (pg. 207)

Additionally, you may want to show students or members of your book club this particular clip of Acevedo reading one of my favorite parts of the book: Acevedo reading from The Poet X.

Let me know what you think of The Poet X. This beautiful book will be on my mind for  years to come.