The Poet X is a quietly powerful, beautiful, and moving novel-in-verse. It’s the story of Xiomara Batista, a Dominican American teenager, the child of immigrants, and a powerfully talented poet. She struggles to fit in, torn between her own desires and the desire to please her religious mother. She feels unseen by those around her, and turns to her notebook to express herself.
This was a truly beautiful book. Please do yourself a favor and listen to the audio; it’s just gorgeous. Acevedo reads it, and Xiomara leaps out of her voice. Ever since listening to Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down on audio, I’ve decided that it’s the only way to read novels in verse. Xiomara’s poetry is meant to be spoken aloud. She finds her power and her voice partly through the experience of slam poetry, and the passion, anger, love, confusion and wonder of her words comes through when spoken aloud in a way that’s fresh and riveting.
The Poet X explores a lot of themes–it’s about finding yourself, first love, faith, the power of words, family, the experience of being first generation and living caught in the midst of many words. But what I loved most about it was that it was so quiet. A lot happened, but most of what happened was ordinary–ordinary in the sense that this is a book about a teenage girl living her life, and all the mess that happens in that life. It’s big because it matters to her, and because her experiences change her.
What made this book so good was Xiomara’s character. She’s smart and conflicted and articulate and it’s impossible not to let her words carry you into her world. I loved how much the story centered her, and her relationship with herself, over everything else. Other people in her life mattered, both to Xiomara and to the plot. She has a complicated and hard relationship with her mother that’s central. She falls for a boy, and their story is also important. Her twin brother, her best friend, and her English teacher all play important roles. But in the end, this isn’t a story about Xiomara and her mother, or about the role a teacher plays in helping her find her voice, or about her first love. It’s about her.
That’s powerful. Women are so often defined by other people. Stories about girls are so often stories about girls in relation to others. The Poet X is about a girl in a community, but ultimately, it’s her story. Her journey, her words, her struggle. It’s about Xiomara learning about herself–what she wants, what she needs, what makes her happy, what makes her angry, what (and who) matters to her. This is a book that centers black girlhood, and the best part was that Xiomara herself is the one who centers it. She refuses to let anyone else hijack the story. She says what she wants to say, how she wants to say it, especially when it hurts, when it’s hard, and when she feels like she can’t.
There’s a moment, when she’s performing a poem at an open mic night, and she muses that all the people around her are telling stories that feel like her story. She realizes that she could do that, with her poems, for someone else. She could be the person to tell a story in which someone else sees themselves reflected. She realizes how powerful that is. It was a really beautiful moment to read.
Put this one at the top of your TBR, folks. It’s a quick read (the audio is 3.5 hours), but it’s packed with depth and beauty and heart.