Elizabeth Acevedo Becomes the First Writer of Color to Win Carnegie Medal

Slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo became the first writer of color to win the Carnegie medal. First established in 1936, it is the UK’s oldest book award for children. Past medal honorees include C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, and Sally Gardner.

The Dominican American poet won the award for her debut novel The Poet X, which tells the story of a Dominican girl called Xiomara Batista, who joins her school’s slam poetry club in Harlem. Acevedo conceived the novel while teaching eighth-grade English at a school in Maryland. According to a statement from the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), which runs the awards, Acevedo’s book “offers a searing, unflinching exploration of culture, family, and faith within a truly innovative verse structure. We follow the emotional odyssey of its heroine, Xiomara, as she rails, cries, laughs, loves, prays, writes, raps, and, ultimately, offers hope.”

“Xiomara comes to life on every page and shows the reader how girls and women can learn to inhabit, and love, their own skin,” the statement continued.

“This is a powerful novel on every level: its vivid evocation of a Harlem neighborhood, the challenges, disappointments, and often misdirected love of motherhood and intimate glimpses of a young woman’s interior life are laid bare for the reader.”

Acevedo, the daughter of Dominican immigrants, realized that the books she taught did not contain characters of color that reflected her students. It was particularly evident when one of her students, Katherine, would not read any of the books Acevedo offered her, The Guardian reported. The girl told her teacher, “None of these books are about us.”In response, Acevedo wrote a story that reflected the neighborhoods she and her students are from. “When your body takes up more room than your voice/ you are always the target of well-aimed rumors, / which is why I let my knuckles talk for me,” she wrote in The Poet X. “I’ve forced my skin just as thick as I am.”

According to The Guardian, Acevedo said: “This was a girl who physically seemed to be taking up so much space but she had to be withdrawn, she was afraid to push the boundaries. 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.”“I felt like this student had given me a challenge, or at least permission to grab the baton. She gave me 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 about her student during her acceptance speech.

Acevedo could not be immediately reached for comment. Her debut novel has also received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Pura Belpré Award, according to Bustle.The author released her second book, With the Fire on High, in May. The novel, which has spent six weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers’ list for young adult hardcover, is about a Latinx teen named Emoni Santiago who must juggle school, motherhood, and work while exploring her love of cooking.

At the same ceremony, The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris received the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration. Morris was previously shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2016 for Something About a Bear. In 2017, outrage over the awards’ entirely white 20-book long list prompted an independent review into the lack of racial diversity in the award’s history. The review found that the UK’s overwhelmingly white librarian workforce, which is responsible for nominating books for the medal, were largely unaware of books written by writers of color, The Guardian reported.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.