Two characters in different YA books have a lot in common

“The Poet X” and “Devils Within” explore the yearning to break free from parents and the past.

By Jesse / Everett Public Library staff

I’ve never minded our wet winters too terribly. I’m a grizzled native of upstate New York. I sneer at nor’easters and laugh off blizzards. I shoveled my driveway all winter every winter from the age of eighteen days to eighteen years. I walked to school uphill both ways in freezing rain while wearing flip flops. So now, a little Northwest rain? That’s what real winter warriors like me call “cute.” Grossly exaggerated braggadocio aside, I still get excited for spring. Peeks of sunshine, baseball games, blooming flowers and, best of all, a deluge of phenomenal new fiction. As usual I’ve been glutting on Y.A. novels, and while several have been standouts, two in particular have worked their way into my head, staying with me long after I turned the final page.

Xiomara, the narrator of Elizabeth Acevedo’s “The Poet X,” is an incredibly compelling and complex young woman who immediately won me over. She is fierce, independent and loyal to her twin brother, but also is struggling with questions about her identity and the conflicts between her own desires and the expectations of her Dominican parents. The relationship with her parents is particularly tenuous; while her brother is treated as a golden child, she has always felt like more of a problem than a blessing.

As issues with her parents come to a head and romance with a classmate grows complicated, Xiomara is desperate for a release, which she finds through her poetry and a developing interest in slam performance. Xiomara has finally found a place where she belongs, but unless she can make her parents better understand her world, she may lose this precious chance to blossom through her craft.

Beyond the beautifully crafted characters, this verse novel shines because of Acevedo’s fantastic writing. This should be no surprise as Acevedo is an extremely talented poet, but I was still struck by the sheer beauty of her storytelling. As an added bonus, this month’s Reading Challenge is to read poetry. All you need to do for a chance to win is to take a photo with the book you read and post it on social media with the hashtag #EverettReads. “The Poet X” is a profound and compelling work that I am excited to suggest to the young readers I work with each day, and its eligibility for the April challenge is the cherry on top!

While “The Poet X” has stuck with me because of its wonderfully dynamic characters, S.F. Henson’s “Devils Within” has haunted me with its resonant, tense and chilling depiction of domestic terrorism. The story opens with a young man named Nate moving to a new town to live with his uncle. Nate wants nothing more than to keep his head down and remain unnoticed, but he has a past that will be difficult to escape. Nate is the son of a powerful white-supremacist leader and was raised to carry forward his father’s hateful legacy. Despite a childhood filled with violent acts, indoctrination and racist misinformation, Nate always felt that his father and his followers were wrong and yearned to be free of their poisonous influence. He eventually does escape, but it comes with a cost. During a frantic struggle, Nate kills his father and spends time in both prison and a treatment center before being turned over to an uncle who believes his nephew is the same brand of bigot that Nate’s father was (and a killer to boot).

Nate is determined to keep his past hidden. He is deeply ashamed of the life he led and is terrified of being tracked down by his father’s vengeful and zealous compatriots. Nate begins school but struggles to adjust to his new social and academic surroundings. Over time Nate is offered a glimmer of hope. Brandon, a popular classmate, seems genuinely interested in befriending Nate and determined to help him find a place in his new town. Nate is amazed as Brandon is not only the first kind person he has met in the town but also his first friend who is a person of color. As the ghosts of his past begin to fade, Nate yearns to open up to Brandon, confessing the horrible things he has seen and done. But before Nate can take this risk, his past begins to catch up with him, bringing with it the toxic hate and terrible violence he thought he had left behind threatening to destroy his new life and, even worse, putting his new friend in jeopardy.

Henson is unflinching in her portrayal of the racism and bigotry that is still pervasive in our society. While at times this book is a thrilling adventure, it is also a fever dream that I know is far too real for many Americans. As the novel approached an impending and climactic confrontation, I wanted desperately to stop reading and yet could not put the book down. In my mind, that is as high praise as I can give.

At first glance, there are not many similarities between the story of a Dominican girl in Harlem and a former white nationalist in Alabama. But as I dwell on both Xiamora’s and Nate’s stories, I see many through lines in their lives. They’re both in conflict (albeit on very different levels) with the expectations and identities of their parents, desperate to find their own place in the larger world around them and yet determined to live their lives by their own rules — not by those forced upon them. I am so grateful to both Elizabeth Acevedo and S.F. Henson for creating these memorable young people and allowing me to see the world through their eyes.

Be sure to visit the Everett Public Library blog for more reviews and news of all things happening at the library.

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