A Place to ‘Land’
In New Novel, National Book Award-Winning Author Continues Exploring Questions of Home and BelongingBy Sala Levin ’10 | Photo by Denzel Golatt
On Nov. 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587, departing John F. Kennedy International Airport for Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, crashed in Queens soon after takeoff. Two hundred sixty-five people died, nearly 90% of them Dominican.
At the time, Elizabeth Acevedo MFA ’15, the daughter of Dominican immigrants, was living in her native New York City with her family. “Everyone knew someone who was on that plane,” Acevedo says. “We had neighbors who were on that flight. My father had friends.”
That plane crash is the foundation of Acevedo’s acclaimed third book, “Clap When You Land,” a novel in verse that explores the relationship between two sisters—one in New York, the other in the Dominican Republic—who don’t know about the other’s existence until their father dies in the accident.
“What I remember most starkly is ... how it didn’t seem to matter to the rest of the country or world once it was determined that it wasn’t terrorism,” she says. “For me, it was about how can we zoom in on people who were on that flight?”
Telling stories about people who often find themselves relegated to society’s margins has long been a passion for Acevedo, who won the 2018 National Book Award for Children’s Literature for her debut novel, “The Poet X.” After finishing her undergraduate degree at the George Washington University, Acevedo taught middle school English in Prince George’s County.
“When I first began writing ‘The Poet X,’ I was very much thinking about my own students, the kids in my classroom who didn’t enjoy reading yet desperately wanted stories that reflected them,” she says.
Growing up, Acevedo’s “first entryway into storytelling” was through music, both the bolero and bachata music of Latin America and the hip-hop favored by her brothers. She began writing and performing slam poetry, eventually becoming a National Poetry Slam champion.
“The physical performance of the vocal is much more at the front of a lot of poets’ compositional practices right now,” says Joshua Weiner, a professor of poetry at UMD who taught Acevedo, “and Liz at the time was really one of the innovators in that ambition.”
At Maryland, Acevedo wrote about her neighborhood, the people she knew and her own experiences growing up. Stories about her home—the very concept of home—remain at the heart of her work.
“I know very few people who are part of a diaspora and don’t in some capacity wonder what it means to be of a place that your family has essentially left,” she says. “What does it mean to return? ... I belong here, but I also belong somewhere else.”
A Happy Ending for Terp Authors
Alums Gravitate Toward Young Adult Books
Four Terp authors have released timely titles for tweens and teens in recent months, three of which landed on The New York Times’ list of bestselling hardcover books for young adults.
Award-winning authors Elizabeth Acevedo MFA ’15 and Jason Reynolds ’05 were joined on the list by debut novelist Roseanne A. Brown ’17, while Kim Johnson M.Ed. ’03 launched her first book in July. The books have more in common than their writers’ alma mater: Each focuses on the experiences of people of color.
“Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi is an adapted version of Kendi’s 2016 book “Stamped from the Beginning,” which explores the history of anti-Black racism through the lives of five historical figures.
“‘Can I make this something cool?’” Reynolds, a leading writer of young adult fiction, told NPR he wondered when Kendi approached him. “I wanted to try to figure out how to make this really complex thing that has all this information that he gave the world, how do I take it and make it feel like a fresh pair of Jordans.”
Brown’s novel, “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin,” is a fantasy set in a fictional city-state where two teens who must kill one another to bring back relatives from the dead find themselves falling in love.
The book, Brown said, was inspired by “mental health stigma in the Black community and (by) fantasy ... I realized I had never encountered a book that combined both.” The novel also pays homage to stories from her native Ghana. “I had always wanted to read a novel that felt like the epic fantasies my family had told me growing up,” she said.
Johnson’s “This Is My America” tells the story of a Black teenager navigating the judicial system, with her father on death row for a murder she’s convinced he didn’t commit and a brother who’s suspected of a terrible crime.
She hopes the current sociopolitical climate offers added relevance to her story. “I want people to enjoy (the book), but I also want it to be an educational experience for people—maybe even a call to action,” she says.—SL
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