The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.
Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.
But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.
So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.
Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.
Acevedo’s first page is a tough sell. The whole book is written in a beautiful narrative poetry without excessive flourish, but the first page is more flowery and offers a language barrier to an English-speaking reader. Throughout the book there are a lot of Spanish words, phrases, and sometimes whole pages. These are always explained, either with outright English translations or through context clues. The two languages flow smoothly through the story of a girl caught between cultures. But the Spanish on the first page isn’t explained and it made me dread reading the rest because I expected to stop frequently to Google the translation. My point: don’t let the first page scare you away.
Xiomara is a 15 year-old who is expected to fulfill her mother’s lost dreams. She is expected to complete Confirmation classes and fully accept the religion that is so important to her mother, but her “doubt has already been confirmed.” Xiomara’s story revolves around three relationships that are difficult in any teen’s life: her mother, her crush, and her body. Her struggles and pain are relatable no matter the reader’s background. This story is for anyone who needs to be heard.
Poetry is Xiomara’s outlet in the book, but readers could translate that aspect into anything that helps them express themselves. The book is not so focused on poetry that it is off-putting to us prose readers. I would recommend The Poet X to any teen. It would also be a good fit for the parents of teenage girls. It offers several topics that could make excellent conversation starters for teens and their parents. Xiomara isn’t given the information she needs on taboo topics such as menstruation, religion, and sex. She sees her body as a problem, her curves drawing too much attention, and her mother confirms this thought.
The poetic format makes the book go by quickly; it would definitely be a good choice for busy teens. There is an intensity to the story that makes you root for Xiomara and keep turning pages until her problems are resolved. However, the resolutions in her relationships came a little easily considering how difficult the problems felt. Questioning any aspect of her mother’s rules earns punishments that made me cringe. Xiomara ends up with a support network to help her move forward, but her physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother is not addressed. Wrapping everything up so quickly at the end disappointed me after the steady flow and heart wrenching scenes throughout the book. If The Poet X was adapted into something else, it would make a great play. There is something about seeing spoken word poetry live that makes a bigger impact than watching it on a screen. A stage adaptation would allow the heart and pain of the characters to come to life.
American Panda by Gloria Chao
At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.
With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth–that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.
But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?
Mei’s parents were born in Taiwan and have extremely traditional beliefs that control every aspect of their and their children’s lives. Chao makes it clear that this is an extreme interpretation of a culture, not what would be seen in most Chinese-American families. Mei, a 17 year-old student at MIT, is caught between wanting to obey her parents and wanting to be happy. While the story delves frequently into cultural superstitions and rules, it is familiar to anyone who feels different from their parents, and who doesn’t, at 17?
Mei is expected to work hard at both beauty and academics, always falling short of her family’s expectations. The contradiction is evident in her struggles with poor eyesight; she can’t see across the room but isn’t allowed to wear glasses because because they’re ugly. Her life is summed up when she says “most things you did weren’t good enough and unconditional obedience was expected.” Anyone who has struggled to meet someone else’s standards will see themselves in Mei. Because of this relatability, the character’s strength in overcoming obstacles is even more impactful. She is able to push through the pain of her parents’ disapproval and actually turn the relationship around enough to help them. One strong part of the characterization is Mei’s love for her parents; despite her difficult relationship with their traditional views, she will not allow anyone to criticize them. Teens will relate to this emotional tug of war. The setting of American Panda is developed nicely, allowing readers to wander around MIT alongside the characters. It shows a glimpse of college life that isn’t often seen in YA. The story is realistic, heartbreaking, and humorous. The book moves fast and keeps your attention, making it a good choice for reluctant readers. I would definitely watch it as a movie; Mei performs cultural dances that would be beautiful on screen.
The Winner: American Panda by Gloria Chao
There was a huge overlap in these two books despite being focused on completely different cultures. Neither protagonist received important medical or sexual information from her parents. Both were expected to fulfill their mothers’ unmet dreams. Both found a form of expression that allowed them to survive the strict rules and steep punishments. These stories will ring true with many teens no matter their background. I found both books to be well-written, immersive reads. There are two things that pushed my choice toward American Panda as the winner: the humor and resolution. The voicemails had me laughing out loud throughout the book, and there is even a stand up comedy routine. The humor added lightness and likeability to American Panda, whereas The Poet X was primarily dark and dramatic. Not every book needs a happy ending, but for teens who could so easily relate to these characters, allowing an abusive relationship to exist without resolution or explanation in The Poet X is problematic. I would be hesitant to hand the book to a teen dealing with abuse in their own life. In American Panda the conflicts are cleared up for a healthier conclusion. The author’s note at the end also reaches out to readers to let them know they’re not alone. It is a story of a strong female protagonist navigating two cultures to find her own happiness. American Panda wins my vote.
Rylie Roubal is the director, marketer, web designer, kid and teen collection development specialist, teen and adult programmer, and occasional cleaner of mysterious messes at the Hinckley Public Library District. She enjoys playing pool, drinking tea, and reading books in which at least one main character dies at the end.