Cover Story: In Your Head
Right off the bat, I should acknowledge that the designer of this cover actually stole the photo from another artist (literally, her face), and obviously that is terrible. But just speaking aesthetically, I adore the use of the inkblots that speak to Xiomara’s notebook, filled with the words you also see spiraling out of her mind. One look at this cover, and you know you’re in for a powerful story.
So, this book was published over two years ago, and I hate being late to the game–partially because I like to YAngelize about new books, but mostly because The Poet X received incredible reviews and multiple awards (National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Michael L. Printz Award, the Pura Belpré Award), and it’s like, what more can I say? But who knows, maybe you’ve missed all of the raves, and if I can persuade you to crack this beauty open, I’ll have accomplished my good deed for the day.
As she heads into the tenth grade, Xiomara Batista finds herself suddenly questioning everything. Why is it so much harder to be a girl than a boy in a Dominican family? Why do the guys at school feel like they can ogle her body and make lewd comments? Why does her mother never seem to understand her? Why should she pray to a God that only makes her feel bad about herself? As she struggles to navigate this maelstrom of feelings, she takes comfort in her notebook, a space where she can let her thoughts run free. But all too quickly, her emotions refuse to be contained by the pages, and Xio begins to defy her mother by dating a boy, by skipping confirmation class, by joining a Spoken Word Poetry Club. She’s discovering her self and finding her voice–but how can she get her parents to hear it?
BFF Charm: Platinum
Xiomara is force of nature, wrapped in the body of a self-conscious girl. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a fighter, a total firecracker, but she’s also eaten up with anxiety and guilt, and she wants her mom’s approval just as desperately as she wishes she could break all of the rules. I love Xio’s headstrong attitude, the fact that she can’t help but speak her mind, even when that makes things worse for her. I love her curious mind, and her affection for her brother, Xavier, whom she calls Twin (I love that too). And most of all, I love her spirit, her bold and brave dreams, her longing to be free from familial expectations and societal constraints. The name Xiomara means “one who is ready for war,” and while she might not always think so, Xio certainly lives up to her name.
Swoonworthy Scale: 6
In her bio class, Xiomara is partnered with a boy named Aman, and they begin a slow, sweet, quiet romance, bonding over music and sitting on a park bench for hours each day. Xio isn’t allowed to date, but the forbidden aspect of their relationship doesn’t make it sexier–which is a good thing in this case, because there’s something so pure about their connection, the way they can savor silence together, the way they shyly progress to holding hands, the way they pass notes. In other words, it’s tough not to read their story without a goofy grin stealing across your face.
Talky Talk: Slammin’
Full disclosure, I typically avoid books written in verse. Maybe it’s because I find the rhythm off-putting or distracting? I say that in case you’re a bit of a Fred Savage like me in this regard, because get this: I had ZERO problems diving right in and submersing myself in this novel. Elizabeth Acevedo is a National Poetry Slam Champion, and it shows. Her writing really packs a punch, walloping you one minute, blowing you away the next, and there’s a heat to her words, a searing sort of ache, that you can feel in your bones. I have to resist the urge to just copy and paste, like, the entire book here, because every page is electric, but here are a few lines to give you a taste of Acevedo’s power with the pen:
When your body takes up more room than your voice
you are always the target of well-aimed rumors…
When I’m told to have faith
in the father the son
in men and men are the first ones
to make me feel so small.
And I think about all the things we could be
if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.
I mean… right?!!! I almost gave this book a DNRIP (Do Not Read in Public) warning because you should fully expect to find yourself nodding heartily in agreement, whispering “Yes! This!”, and occasionally even pumping a fist as if you were actually at a slam competition. Oh yeah, and there will be tears.
Bonus Factor: Diversity
As an Afro-Latina, Xiomara’s perspective is layered with the influences of her Dominican culture, her mother’s Catholicism, and her Harlem neighborhood. There are so many details–Dominican slang, the cadence of Xio’s dialogue with her best friend, Xio’s body image–that come together to form a richly nuanced portrait of what it’s like to be a teenage Black Latina.
Relationship Status: You’re My Hero
Book, pardon me for swimfanning, but you’re empowering and inspiring and just… awesome in every sense of the word. You don’t shy away from the truth, and in doing that, you show us all the importance of raising our voices, especially when the world doesn’t want to hear it. Thanks to your vulnerability, I’m pretty sure my heart grew a size; thanks to your poetry, my soul feels fortified; thanks to your courage, I will never forget the power of my words–and the paramount need to listen to the words of others.
FTC Full Disclosure: I purchased my own copy of this book and received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review.