Dominican-American slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo is the first black woman to be awarded the Carnegie medal which is the United Kingdom’s oldest and most prestigious children’s book award, recognizing writing and illustration in books for children and young people.
Acevedo is the daughter of Dominican immigrant parents and the piece that won her the award is her debut book “The Poet X,” which is the story of a quiet little Dominican girl named Xiomara who enters her school’s slam poetry club.
The judges described the novel as “a searing, unflinching exploration of culture, family, and faith within a truly innovative verse structure,” adding that the main character “comes to life on every page and shows the reader how girls and women can learn to inhabit, and love their own skin.”
The writer used to teach English in a school in the United States (U.S.) and she was inspired to compose this story by one of her student who continually refused to read any of the stories assigned to her because, according to the student, “none of the books were about them.” As a response, the writer consequently set out to create “a story that sounds like and depicts the same kind of neighborhood”, both her students and she are from.
“I felt like this student had given me a challenge, or at least 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,” Acevedo said in her speech after winning the medal. The novel is dedicated by its author to all the girls who have no role models in literature books, who cannot identify nor recognize themselves in any of the characters in average children’s books.
A peer-reviewed article by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) reported that there is a widespread absence of books depicting black girls as main characters. These girls subsequently are unable to identify to the stories that they are required to read. Their own experience is generally negated and not valued because it is not represented, experts explain. Also, Acevedo’s win is significant as it comes after the prize has faced criticism because of the lack of racial diversity among its lists of nominees and winners.
The prize decided to lead its own investigation to explain this phenomenon and came to the conclusion that the predominantly white librarian workforce who nominate books for the medal was for the most part unaware of titles by black writers. The investigation also found that very few books by black writers were published in the U.K.
The award was created in 1936 and includes among its winners, famous writers such as Arthur Ransome and CS Lewis.