When the phone rang in her Washington, D.C. home on Saturday evening, Elizabeth Acevedo saw that it was from an unfamiliar number, and chose not to pick up. The debut author of The Poet X (HarperTeen) was hosting her in-laws, and the family was preparing to go out to dinner. But the caller persisted, and eventually left a voice mail. “The reception was a bit fuzzy,” Acevedo recalled, “but I did pick up on the words, ‘ALA Midwinter,’ and I told my family, ‘I have to return this call.’ ”
Her instincts were spot on. “I remember wondering what the caller, whose name I didn’t recognize, had to say to me,” she said. “And when she mentioned I had won the Printz Award, I entirely lost my words. And all I could think was, ‘Here I am a writer, so I should have words, but I have zero words, and she is going to think I am so inarticulate!’ ” Acevedo soon found words—or at least four of them: “I just kept repeating, ‘I am so honored’—over and over again. I know that award judges read many, many amazing books, and it hit home what it meant to be honored with this award. I could find very little to say, but I do hope my deep humility came through.”
That wasn’t the only surprise call Acevedo received over the weekend. On Sunday night, the phone rang again, and this go-round, the author didn’t hesitate. “I guess by that time, I had figured out the ropes, and I picked up the phone right away!” she said. “I heard the words, ‘Pura Belpré,’ and I thought I heard the word “honors,’ but then realized that I’d won the actual award. I called my editor immediately.”
A strong believer in Acevedo and her novel, v-p and editorial director Rosemary Brosnan was thrilled, but not surprised, to receive the author’s call. “As soon as I started reading the manuscript for The Poet X, I knew I had to publish it!” she said. “I found Elizabeth’s poetry to be exquisite, and the story to be both a universal portrayal of a girl rebelling against what she has been taught by her family, and a tale that is deeply rooted in the main character’s experience growing up as the Dominican-American child of immigrants.”
The roster of accolades that The Poet X has garnered since its publication last March is lengthy and impressive. In addition to the Printz and Pura Belpré wins, this YA novel in verse, told in the voice of a Harlem teenage girl of Dominican descent who discovers slam poetry, was awarded the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry, received five starred reviews (including one from PW), and appeared on no fewer than a dozen Best Books of the Year lists (including PW’s).
Though writing a novel was a new experience for Acevedo, who like her heroine is Dominican-American, she sensed that she was on a solid track. “I knew I had something special in that I was telling a story that felt true,” she said. “And I knew the story was something that I needed to read as a teenager. I felt if it helped others who need to feel more ‘seen,’ that would be very special. I wrote the novel in verse, which I am very comfortable with, yet it took me a long time to finish, since I didn’t know anything about plotting.”
Addressing the inevitable double-edged sword of success, Acevedo acknowledged that receiving what she describes as “amazing recognition from such a cross-section of communities of readers and writers” brings validation, but also intimidation. When the praise and honors began rolling in for The Poet X, the author observed, “Luckily, I’d already received the ARC for my second novel, With the Fire on High [HarperTeen, May], so I couldn’t snatch it back!”
Wisely, the author remains confident and forward-thinking. “I can’t worry that my second novel, or the third, which I’m now writing, will be held up against The Poet X. They are all very different—I never want to tell the same story.” Acevedo said she is very thankful for the validation she has received, “and so grateful to Rosemary and the others in my corner who recognized I might do big things, and who were hoping and wishing, and patiently helped me discover what I could do. But now I have to put blinders on and continue to write what moves me and what is true. I want to become better at my craft and discover how I can grow and where else I can push.”