After participating in the Well-Read Black Girl Workshop with Glory Edim earlier in the day on June 28, Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X; With the Fire on High) took the stage for the afternoon keynote, echoing the importance of representation and inclusion, recognizing our role as gatekeepers, and a bookstore’s responsibility to create a welcoming space.
Acevedo first shared with the audience her experience of teaching high school in Philadelphia shortly after her college graduation. Her students had never had an Afro-Latina teacher, she said. “I was charged with getting students ready for tests, but I really wanted to grow readers.” She recalled the experience of having a student resignedly say, “books aren’t for me” and realizing that, for that reader, there weren’t enough books speaking to her experience. Acevedo reminded the gathered booksellers of the power of truly seeing a reader and of caring enough to suggest a book, saying, “I saw this and thought of you.”
Acevedo soon realized that what she truly wanted was to write for young people and, as a slam poet, she was interested in sharing the poetic form. “People think verse asks, ‘what do I mean?’ rather than ‘what do I make you feel?’ ” Acevedo explained about many readers’ hesitancy to embrace the form. She then transitioned into a story about an MFA professor’s animal ode assignment. When Acevedo suggested writing an ode to the rat, her professor discouraged centering the animal, as it was not “noble” enough for an ode. “I have no use for nobility,” Acevedo said with finality, explaining that this close-minded perspective prevents a “multiplicity of experiences” from being shared and celebrated. Acevedo still wrote her “Rat Ode” and she performed the poem for the assembled booksellers.
Further highlighting the importance of embracing all genres and experiences, Acevedo spoke of her interest in romance, noting her enjoyment of the genre and that “the poet within is interested in the use of a specific form and an expected ending.” She recounted visiting a bookstore in search of a romance novel, entering the bookstore to silence and no greeting. Approaching the bookseller, she asked for a romance recommendation, sharing the titles and authors she had enjoyed before. The bookseller quickly dismissed her interest in romance and remained uninterested in helping to connect her with titles within the genre, neither providing recommendations nor showing her to their “small” section. This behavior, Acevedo said, is “not just a statement about the authors of romance, but about the reader.” She likened this dismissiveness of the genre to the effect of failing to represent a wide variety of experiences on bookstore shelves.
Challenging the booksellers in the audience to consider what it means to step in and provide a reader with windows and mirrors, Acevedo recalled the importance of being seen and the lasting impression her elementary school teacher, Phil Bildner, also an author, had on her development as a reader and writer. She shared a story of being encouraged by Bildner at age 12 to write to Angela Johnson about her novel, Heaven, of which Acevedo had strong opinions to share. Acevedo wanted to know more about the character Bobby, a teen father. When, years later, Johnson published The First Part Last, a sequel to Heaven that shares Bobby’s perspective, Acevedo found Johnson had dedicated the book to her. “This was such a gift. I realized a story idea I had had was good enough to make into a book.”
Bringing the narrative full circle, Acevedo shared the dedication of her debut novel, The Poet X, which is dedicated to her student who had felt that books were not for her because her experience was so rarely represented.
During a q&a session, Acevedo was asked to share some of her favorite romance authors. She gave shout-outs to Lisa Kleypas, Alyssa Cole, Grace Burrowes, Tessa Dare, and Courtney Milan.
When asked what she feels makes a bookstore a welcoming space, Acevedo acknowledged that many people are “scared and intimidated by bookstores,” so part of the battle is “reinventing what bookstores are.” She noted that greeting customers is simple and important.
A question about encouraging readers to embrace books outside of their experience prompted a reminder from Acevedo that “sometimes you have to think of books as an invitation. Some people aren’t ready to go to the party.” The key, Acevedo said, is to be sure that we as community spaces are ready to offer readers books that both comfort and challenge.