The Poet X follows Xiomara, a Dominican American 15-year-old from Harlem, as she navigates high school and family life. The novel focuses on how difficult it can be to reconcile the idea your parents have of you and who you actually are, as Xiomara tries to find a balance between exploring her growing interest in writing and the expectations of her traditional Catholic mother.
The book is realistic in its representation of both the heavier and lighter aspects of her experiences, of both the pressures that come with being objectified and scrutinized while growing up as a Latina woman and the butterflies that come with a first high school crush and discovering who you are.
The choice of writing in verse perfectly suits Xiomara’s voice and her evolving relationship with words and rhythm. The book reads like journal entries and the poems sound like New York, like the Dominican Republic, like a teenager.
I personally love how specific the context is and how universal the themes are. Beyond the joy of seeing my culture represented, it brought me back to that time of my life when every choice seemed like it would determine who I would become and when reconciling home life and outside life sometimes seemed impossible, when adults just didn’t seem to get it.
Since its release, the book has been assigned in many American classrooms to students as young as 13. It is a great way to explore poetry, but it is also a useful point of entry to evoke topics such as sexism, parenting, religion, or the way your body changes as you grow up. As a high school teacher, I had my 16-year-old students read it and they loved it so much a year later they were still talking about it with other teachers.
There is one scene that depicts physical punishment which some readers may find hard to read, but overall it is a positive story about finding yourself and finding your people.