By Karis Rogerson
One question that can be enlightening to ask of any writer is—why. Apart from the career side of writing, why is the act itself important?
Elizabeth Acevedo, author of multiple award-winning books for young readers, explained that writing is how she processes the world, saying it’s her way of figuring out the impact that life events have had on her.
“Writing is thinking. Writing is thinking. Writing is thinking,” Acevedo told We Need Diverse Books. “So, I write to understand myself better, and in that way to understand the world around me.”
Of course, in addition to processing the world through her writing, Acevedo is writing for publication, and for readers. She said the best part of her publication journey so far has been seeing these same readers react to, love, and occupy a world she created.
“I’ve received sweet tweets wishing my characters happy birthday long after I’ve forgotten that detail…these little narrative interactions go beyond what I’ve written and become a story collaboration between myself and the reader as we engage with the novel together.”
Acevedo is the author of novels for young adults in both prose and verse, and her latest, Clap When You Land, is a verse novel about two sisters discovering each other after the loss of their father, based on the true event of a plane which crashed on its way to the Dominican Republic.
Originally, Acevedo said, the story was written from the perspective of only one of the sisters, but “something wasn’t ringing true.” It was after fellow author Ibi Zoboi suggested she add the second sister’s voice that things slid into place.
“It opened up and deepened the story I was trying to tell: what happens when two sisters lose the largest figure in their lives but gain each other?” Acevedo recalled.
The writing process for this novel involved a lot of research. “I’m pretty sure I’m on a government watchlist somewhere!” Acevedo joked. Her research encompassed everything from the speed at which a body decomposes in saltwater to learning who is eligible to receive an emergency visa to the United States.
“Writing is input as well as output,” Acevedo said, “and this novel required me to spend time in every corner of the story to ensure I was populating the narrative with precision and accuracy.”
Acevedo’s previous two works for young readers, The Poet X and With the Fire on High, were recipients of the WNDB Walter Dean Myers Awards for Outstanding Children’s Literature; in addition, The Poet X won the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
I asked Acevedo what these awards mean to her, and her candid answer reflected on both the good and the potential pitfalls of such recognition.
“This is a tough question to answer,” she said. “On the one hand, I’m always, always grateful to any institution that chooses to amplify my work. It means the world to me to know that readers will be able to discover my characters due to an award or sticker that highlights the work for them.
“That said,” Acevedo continued, “I actively work against the voice inside me that says without these recognitions my work has failed. So, it’s important to me that I not lose sight of my objective with each project regardless of how it’s ornamented.”
In addition to her novels in verse and her poetry collection Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths, Acevedo has been involved in poetry slams—she’s a National Poetry Slam Champion—and says all of her poetry-writing stems from songwriting. In high school, a teacher invited her to join the poetry club, where she realized how closely tied together the rap lyrics she’d kept in a notebook were with poetry and slams.
“What I’d been doing was also poetry and aligned directly with what is required of one to perform in a slam: a competitive nature, an affinity for language, a desire to jump on the stage,” she said. “As someone who was desperately insecure about her body, it meant the world to stand in front of strangers and take up space of my own volition.”
Much of Acevedo’s work has been geared toward young people, so it was interesting to get her perspective on why poetry, especially, is important for teens and others to read.
“I think poetry is about the observation of a moment, of a human interaction and I know few forms of art that push us towards empathy as clearly as poetry,” she said. “I think young people especially need to read text that affirms what they feel is valid, and that also pushes them towards an understanding of how others live and think.”
A collection of poetry Acevedo recommended as one she’d recently read and loved is Post-Colonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz. In addition, she recommended the YA anthology A Phoenix First Must Burn edited by Patrice Caldwell and the middle-grade novel A High Five for Glenn Burke by Phil Bildner.
Karis Rogerson is an American, Canadian, pseudo-Italian who loudly (but only sometimes fluently) speaks 2.5 languages and is proud to be of the auburn-haired club. As a reader and writer, her childhood heroes included Anne of Green Gables and Jo March (classic), and these days she admires authors like Angie Thomas, Sandhya Menon, and Heidi Heilig, who are changing the world one brilliant story at a time. Find more of her writing on her website, and follow her on Twitter or Instagram for writing updates and pictures of Italy and New York City.