Dominican-American writer Elizabeth Acevedo has made history as the first person of color to win the Carnegie Medal.
The Carnegie Medal is a British literary award that annually recognises one outstanding new English-language book for children or young adults. It is conferred upon the author by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).
With a history dating back to 1936, the Carnegie medal boasts Arthur Ransome, CS Lewis, and Neil Gaiman among its former winners.
The daughter of Dominican immigrants, Acevedo won the medal for her debut novel, The Poet X – a novel about Xiomara, who joins her school’s slam poetry club in Harlem as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her relationship to the world.
“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,” Acevedo’s website wrote.
Acevedo’s encounter with one of her students when she was an eighth-grade English teacher in Maryland would be the driving force behind the history-making novel. It was reported that the student who goes by name Katherine wouldn’t read any of the books offered her.
Why? “None of these books are about us,” explained Katherine.
“This was a girl who physically seemed to be taking up so much space but felt she had to be withdrawn, she was afraid to push the boundaries,” Acevedo was quoted by the Guardian saying.
“Her body takes up so much attention it would be easy to forget all the things she’s thinking, things she won’t say. I wanted to be really close to those feelings and show the everyday magic and beauty that quiet folks can hold.”
In her acceptance, Acevedo acknowledged how the refusal of Katherine to read any of the books given and the explanation she gave challenged her.
“I felt like this student had given me a challenge, or at least permission to write a story about young people who take up space, who do not make themselves small, who learn the power of their own words,” she said in her acceptance speech.
Acevedo, who is no longer a teacher, further told Hip Latina in May: “I write for us. I write for us to see ourselves depicted with tenderness and nuance and ferocity and unflinching honesty.”
“I hope young Latinx readers, particularly if they are Afro-Latinx, see that they are allowed to be the heroes, they are allowed to live loudly and colorfully and with their whole selves. I hope they know they are seen and loved and that I’m rooting for, and cheering on, their triumphs.”
Acevedo’s win comes two years after the prize instigated an independent review into its historical lack of racial diversity, following widespread anger at 2017’s 20-book, entirely white longlist, The Guardian reports.
Acevedo’s second novel, With the Fire on High, was released in May and it focuses on Emoni Santiago’s life who got pregnant during her freshman years.
Asked by Hip Latina how her identity as the daughter of Dominican immigrants shape her writing, Acevedo replied that she had no other basis “for comparison in regards to my identity, except for my own upbringing, but I think what being my parents’ child ultimately does is make me aware of the different ways we can tell stories.”
“The jokes and riddles and folktales I grew up with at home become entwined with the hip-hop, first-generation, hood stories of the world I live in outside of the house. My writing is an homage, and hopefully upliftment, of the many intersections my body houses,” she added.