Book Review: The Poet X

A review of the young adult novel The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.


The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is a coming of age story about a young Latina (Dominican to be specific) growing up in America. The main character, Xiomara, finds her voice through writing in a journal, which eventually leads her to spoken word. Like most teens, she navigates through puberty (change of appearance, body image, self esteem, etc.), sex/sexuality, first crushes, religion, expression, home life, and many other topics.

What I Loved

I love to see books that shed light on the same mundane topics but through the lens of an underrepresented culture. Growing up, every book my teachers assigned to me were from the lens of white culture and had white main characters. It's important to see yourself in literature and it's important to have the nuances of your culture brought out in these seemingly overdone themes, particularly when it's done by someone of the same background. Since I'm not Latina, I can't speak to the accuracy of it's portrayal, but I am nonetheless happy to see novels emerging for this demographic.

I can also say that Ms. Acevedo does a wonderful job of drawing you in to the characters. There were times that I was angry, sad, and happy for the main character as though she were a real person that I knew. The emotion delivered by the writing is spot on, which I think it possibly the most important factor in a coming of age story.

As a writer who definitely used poetry to clear my head and survive my teen years, I really connected with the character and loved the concept of using her poetry journal to tell the story.

What I Disliked

Much of what I disliked about the book has to do with plotholes and the ending of the book, so this section has spoilers. So for those who don't want spoilers, I'll say I found the end to be unrealistic and found at least one plot hole that really bothered me. If that is satisfactory for you, you can skip to the next section. Otherwise, continue to the spoilers below.

Unrealistic Ending (spoilers)

The climax of the book comes when Xiomara's lies come to the attention of her mother, and her mother reacts exactly the way I would expect. As I mentioned earlier, I'm not Latina, but in my experience there are quite a few things black culture (particularly in the South) and Latinx culture share: no nonsense parents who put the fear of God in you seem to be one of them. Xiomara's mother is so angry that she destroys her daughter's notebook, not by ripping it up or throwing it away, but by setting it on fire and burning it to ashes. Yet, within a few pages and less than a month of time, she is at a poetry slam supporting her daughter.

I feel like using the priest to soften her anger is almost a dues ex machina. I can't flat out call it a dues ex machina because the groundwork is there; we see that her mother is a very devout Catholic (more on that later), so naturally she would be moved by the words of the priest. I just feel like it's unrealistic. This is the same issue I have with 99% of Disney movies. Overbearing, strict parents do not turn into jello overnight. My parents, though not nearly as overbearing or as strict as the archetype given in this book or most stories, still get mad and fuss at me for trivial things and I'm 31 years old living on my own. It took them 3 years to accept me being vegetarian, and my mom still says snide remarks once in a blue moon. There's no way I could have gone against my parents wishes and not only be allowed to continue in that path but supported. Realistically, I see Xiomara's mom letting her have a journal that she promises to keep private, but refusing to let her continue to participate in poetry club or perform at the poetry slam. Also, I doubt she'd let Xiomara continue to spend time with the boyfriend; I think that too would have taken time and came with a hefty set of rules.

Plot Holes (spoilers)

That brings me to the plot hole. Xiomara has a twin bother who we discover is gay. We discover this because Xiomara writes about it in her notebook. When Xiomara's mother discovers the notebook, she specifically complains that Xiomara is writing horrible things about her family in the notebook. If she read the notebook, Xiomara would have accidentally outed her twin brother, but this never comes up. The story concludes with no resolution to his storyline and nothing explicitly stating that the parents know or don't know that he's gay.

That being said, I don't even know what the purpose of his storyline is. In the beginning, he acts as a foil to Xiomara—he's smart, doesn't get into trouble, involved in church, mild mannered, etc. Ignoring the fact that this is cliché and could have been accomplished just as easily through the best friend, it serves as source of internal struggle, as Xiomara compares herself to her twin brother often. The share a room, parents, and DNA, so this is easily a source of confusion and frustration that they could be so different. However, with the introduction of the twin as being gay, we don't get anymore depth to the story. There are a few poems where we see Xiomara somewhat accept things, we don't really see any relief in the sense that now she's not the only oddball. They don't have a heart to heart and open up to each other about what has been happening in their respective lives. The parents don't seem to know, so it's not a factor in why they magically become more lenient toward her. It's really just there to have 1 shocking thing in the story, because the rest of the plot is entirely predictable as most coming of age stories are.

From a Spiritual Perspective

Over the course of this blog, as I've grown my relationship with Christ, I've also started being more aware of what I'm consuming from a spiritual point of view. So, I also want to disclose what I thought of the book from a spiritual perspective, keeping in mind that the target audience for this book is teens.

Sex and Sexuality

I don't have a problem with the themes of sex and sexuality in general. These are important topics and very real concerns/experiences at that age. In fact I'd call the book unrealistic if she wasn't sorting through her new figure, having her first crush, questioning whether she wanted to go all the way or wait... That's normal. I know super conservative Christians would probably shy away from these topics, but sex when placed in the right context is a great thing, and by shying away from the topic we do more harm than good. Honestly, Song of Solomon is way more risqué than anything written in this book.

However, I will say that because the book is written from the point of view of a teenager and she doesn't have any close relationships with any adults, there isn't any sense of morality attached to anything really. We get a lot of her questions and thoughts, but there aren't any answers or guidance to round out the discussion. This isn't just for the main character's exploration of sex and sexuality, but also for other characters in the book. We don't really see closure on these topics or even a healthy dialogue or counter point that would cause the reader to truly think about both sides of the argument. As an adult it's not really a big deal because I already experienced those questions and came to conclusions, but for the target audience who are going through the throes of life with the main character, all they really get is: "do what you think is right and your parents will come around eventually." I don't think that's a great message.

Portrayal of God

The family is Catholic, which makes sense given their background. Of course, the problem is that we live in a society where Catholicism is synonymous with Christianity despite the fact that most of what they do is anti-Biblical and many of their customs are taken from pagan sun worship religions. Nonetheless, the average person reading this will take the ideas of the mother and the priest and ascribe them to Christianity and to the God of Abraham. Given that, it's definitely not a positive portrayal of God.

Once again, I have no problem with tackling a character that is doubting her faith. I think that's a common experience that many can relate to and maybe should be present in literature. However, just like the other issues broached there is no closure.

Would I Recommend

I really wanted to like this book, but end the end, I wouldn't recommend it. Even without getting into how I feel about it from a spiritual perspective, I felt like there was no real closure. Everything was tidied up in a neat package that didn't really make sense. I don't feel like the main character really came of age, so much as she did her own thing and her mother accepted it for the time being. I'm not sure how much she really learned about herself, many of the questions she seemed to have in the beginning were still unanswered at the end. Given that it is a coming of age novel, there really isn't much of a plot, so the impact has to come from the growth of the character. I sympathized with the character and I rooted for the character, but I didn't feel like she experienced such a dynamic growth that the book was satisfying in the end.

Without thinking about the spiritual perspective, I'd say it was "meh." It definitely wasn't an "I-can't-put-this-down" type of book, but I didn't give up on it midway (as has happened to some books). There were things I liked, and things I didn't like, so I probably would have rated it 2.5 or 3 stars. Taking into consideration that it lacks any spiritual grounding (from a Biblical point of view), I'd say my final rating is 2 or 2.5 stars.

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