Elizabeth Acevedo on why she's writing verse novels (that keep winning awards)

Published on: 24 September 2019

Elizabeth Acevedo is the first writer of colour to win the prestigious Carnegie medal. She talks to us about her teen novel, The Poet X, and the books that won her over as a child.  

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (photo credit: Stephanie Ifendu) 

When did you start writing in verse?

I was a schoolteacher and wrote the first 40 pages and realised I didn’t know how to write a novel! So I wrote two other books to practice narrative arc and structure – I was very focused on language initially and not so much the details of how you actually put a story together. Then I returned to The Poet X maybe four years later, and it came together a lot better by then. 

Have you got any particular favourite verse novels?

I read everything Sonya Sones and Ellen Hopkins, which were the most popular verse novels at the time when I started to write The Poet X. But Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming really opened up what a verse novel could do – a real combination of poetry and fiction. 

I really enjoyed the representation of a character for whom faith and religion is important. Can you talk to me about what was important for you to capture in writing this?

I grew up Catholic and although I don’t practise anymore, it was a big part of my upbringing. I went to school with lots of kids who were raised Catholic and I could see they had lots of unanswered questions about life, which I wanted to write about in a sensitive way, to allow the space to talk about the issues that religion poses for teens.

I wasn’t doing anything as extreme as questioning the existence of god or anything, but I wanted to question that experience of religion delicately, as a part of a young girl’s life.

What books did you love as a child?

I actually loved Roald Dahl growing up! I also adored Walter J Myers and read everything he wrote. I read every Harry Potter book, I was a voracious reader!

Fantasy, folktales – I loved Little House on the Prairie, even though at the time there was content in it that I asked myself about. It made me uncomfortable reading that, and I didn’t know what to do with those feelings, but I enjoyed reading the part of it that was girls having an adventure.

I loved great American literature but I didn’t always think it was for me.

What are your upcoming projects?

My second novel, With a Fire on High, is out in September this year and is about a black teen mother who dreams of becoming a chef – there’s an element of magic realism in the book, about the effect her food does to people when they eat it.

My next one after that is the story of two sisters, whose father dies in a car accident; after his death, they learn he had another family they didn’t know about.

Check out our favourite poetry books for teens

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