Author and spoken word artist Elizabeth Acevedo is helping usher in much needed diversity to the genre of Young Adult literature.
There’s a great need for representation in YA literature. A recent study by #WeNeedDiverseBooks found that in 2018, out of 209 U.S.-published YA book covers featuring an individual character (as opposed to a group or no characters whatsoever), only 7.7 percent of these characters were black,, 5.3 percent were Asian-American, 3.8 percent were of Middle Eastern or North African ethnicity, and just 1.4 percent featured a Latinx character; and none featured a Native American or Pacific Islander. In contrast, nearly two-thirds of the book cover characters were white. These numbers are not very surprising, but they are unacceptable. Everyone deserves to see themselves adequately represented in literature, especially if the books are required reading in schools.
As the recipient of numerous awards — including The National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Golden Kite Award for Young Adult Fiction, and a Carnegie Medal, in addition to being a New York Times Best Selling author — Acevedo is changing the Young Adult literature genre and getting the accolades she deserves.
Acevedo’s Spoken Word Poems
Acevedo, a Dominican author from New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, has long been using words to describe, understand, and challenge the world around her. A spoken word artist by trade, she is a National Poetry Slam Champion and has performed at International Poetry Slam performances. Some of her previous spoken word poems include Spear in which she discusses the issues of safety, community, and assault. In her other performance, Hair, she talks about the history of enslaved peoples in the Americas and how their descendants grapple with accepting and rejecting aspects of being afrodescendente, particularly colorism within the generations of a family. When reading her books you can feel that Acevedo has a long relationship with artistically using words to frame, design, and deliver impactful stories that move people.
Diversity in the Classroom
Many of Acevedo’s spoken word performances are impactful; however, Ode to Rat is impactful not only for the content but the context of the piece as well. During one of her poetry writing courses Acevedo’s professor laughed at her and told her she didn’t have enough experience when she shared that she would write an ode about rats. Determined to show that art and inspiration can come from a number of different places, Acevedo wrote Ode to Rat.
This piece, which at first glance appears to be seemingly about a rat, is much more. Ode to Rat is a reclamation of her experiences and story as a young Afro Latina growing up in rat infested New York City neighborhoods. It’s about the grit and the unrelenting determination of New York’s peskiest problems but above all else Ode To Rat is proof that your lived experiences are enough, always. Through her words she illustrates the life of rats, the struggles they face, and their ability to do whatever it takes to make it. Acevedo transforms rats into an allegory for the characteristics needed to live — and thrive — in New York City. The story behind the piece also serves as a reminder that places of learning, art, and literature can be exclusionary both intentionally and unintentionally.
Students Need Diverse Books to Learn
Her personal experiences as a student coupled with her experience as a teacher showed Acevedo how uninterested students would be with required readings that weren’t intriguing to them. Oftentimes, required reading materials would be about people and topics that didn’t speak to a diverse group of students. Inversely, Acevedo noticed when students had books with storylines, authors, and or lead characters that mirrored their lives they were more engaged and motivated to read. Thus, Acevedo took to writing books that she and her students needed. In 2016 she wrote Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths, followed by The Poet X, which was published in 2018, and With The Fire On High in 2019.
Acevedo’s ability to write diverse stories is not achieved through just having Black Latina girls as main characters. It is Acevedo’s talent and intention in writing stories about Black Latina girls as complex and nuanced people who are experiencing a myriad of things: things like different family dynamics, cultural expectations, and learning how to navigate worlds that are not always welcoming to young girls of color all while navigating the relationship with oneself. The beauty is that Acevedo achieves this while not requiring her protagonists to be superhuman heros that must fight the world to achieve their happy ending. In contrast, Acevedo’s protagonists are highly relatable. In essence, the protagonists in Acevedo’s books could be your sister, cousin, homegirl, or you.
Elizabeth Acevedo’s Books
With the Fire on High tells the story about Philadelphia Afro Boricua Emoni Santiago. Santiago is a high school student who dreams of being a chef, is learning how to navigate her relationship with her grandmother, and how to co-parent with her daughter’s father. Unlike many stories about teen mothers, Santiago’s story does not make her pregnancy or early motherhood the center of the story. Instead, Acevedo intentionally started Santiago’s story after pregnancy and the “fourth trimester.”
“I wanted to think about how do we challenge the notions about what stories dealing with teen parenting can look like,” she stated in an interview with All Arts TV. “I think so often the stories about teen pregnancy stop at the pregnancy, I wanted to handle that with dignity and for me that meant picking up at one of the hard parts of the conversation of like ‘we’re here… keep going.’”
The protagonist in The Poet X, Xiomara Batista, is struggling with tensions at home, school, and herself. She can not seem to find her voice until she finds an outlet in writing poetry. Things come to a head when neighbors begin to gossip about her, boundaries are crossed at home, and she begins to struggle in school.
Both Santiago and Batista are girls you know.
Diversity in Young Adult Books
Although the genre is diversifying it still has a long way to go. Diversity in literature is not — and will not — be achieved through simply making a protagonist a person of color or differently abled or LGBTQ. Diversity in literature will continue to be achieved through diverse authors who can truly design and deliver culturally competent stories which consider universal themes. Acevedo is one of those writers who is effectively using her artistic ability with words to illustrate worlds that are common to many but oftentimes rendered invisible in the genre of Young Adult literature. Her work shapes the lives of its readers, following them well beyond their youth and well into adulthood.