Xiomara, Yahaira, Camino and Emoni: Elizabeth Acevedo’s Teen Girl Characters

Clap When You Land and With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo just does not miss!

There are a lot of YA novels about teen girls, but hers center them. It’s not that her main characters are perfectly active agents in control of their lives—just the opposite. Things happen to them that are outside their control. Probably more so because they are young Afro-Latinas. But we find out their reactions, plans and dreams and the way Acevedo writes these girls, they are in such good hands and I close the book feeling like, “They will be fine.” They are cared for, they know who they are, and they have mujeres in their lives who have their backs.

Her two books following The Poet X (2018) pulled so many emotions out of me. With the Fire on High (2019) made me want to be Emoni’s friend. She’s a teen mom who is passionate about cooking in her senior year of high school. I love the way Emoni talked about virginity. Tyrone, her baby daddy, was the first (and only) person she had sex with, yet everyone thinks she is a ho because she got pregnant.

There are so many details that gave the reader a sense of Emoni’s reality as a teen mom: doing her daughter’s hair before she goes to school; being able to sign permission slips for her daughter, but not for herself; and getting her phone confiscated because of school policy when she really needs it in case her daughter’s daycare needs her. These hassles show that she is a high school student at the same time that she is a mom, and she has so many responsibilities that she keeps to herself, which makes people think she is stuck-up.

But that’s ok because she has Abuela, Ms. Fuentes, Angelica and Malachi. I love how they support her even when she isn’t sure where she stands. I especially love Malachi, the transfer student who became her love interest. I love that he doesn’t judge or like her less for being a mom, and he doesn’t rush her into having sex, even though Emoni was fully prepared for that to be the case. [spoiler] When they were about to have sex on their culinary arts field trip to Spain, I LOVE how Malachi was a virgin and Emoni obviously was not! And they talked about it like adults, and it didn’t stop them from being attracted to and friends with each other.

On the other hand, masculinity was all the way toxic in Clap When You Land (2020). Camino and Yahaira never knew each other existed until their father died in a plane crash on his way to the Dominican Republic, where he had another family. The book is about the messy and painful aftermath of his death and the girls grieved. I had so many questions while reading this book and it really took me on a trip.

Like Camino and Yahaira, I had so many questions:

If you have two wives, do you love one let alone both of them? Yahaira’s mami told her that, he might have loved his wives, but his love for his children were not in question.

How do you grieve for someone who has lied to you your whole life? There isn’t an answer.

Just how much can a woman survive? I think Zoila, Yahaira’s mom and later, Camino’s stepmom, really stood out to be in her strength. At first, I thought having your husband not only cheat on you, but to start and raise a whole other family in your home country, for 16 years, would be like dying a slow death.

But Zoila surprised. Her character arc was amazing. She went from being a general’s only child, to a wife whose husband betrayed her in the worst way, to a widow, to the stepmom of the child of her husband and her friend.

I love how she had strengths that didn’t jump out until the times it mattered: She protected her stepdaughter, fiercely, even though just stepping foot on the island where her husband started a second family was excruciating for her. I also love how Camino and Yahaira slowly figured out who their mom is. Camino thought she was “una chica plastica” and Yahaira thought she was a “showpiece of a woman,” but she turned out to be a true matriarch.

The idea of a man fractured, and a family fractured, has been on my mind after reading The Bluest Eye. The pain, grief and utter sadness is also palpable here. Some reviews said the language in this book felt bruised, raw and wounded and they are absolutely right. My chest literally hurt thinking about what Zoila, Tia, and even Camino’s mom, and the girls must have gone through.

But I think I was wrong to be angry at Yano for being a womanizer. The book isn’t about him. It’s about the women healing (Tia and Camino), defending (Zoila) and making moves (Yahaira) in the absence of him.

And that is just so beautiful.

Flawed kid protagonists tell their stories

There are many protagonists in kidlit that are very mature and evolved, and when you read a lot of fiction, this starts to feel normal. However, children in real life are flawed and not nearly as together as most kidlit protagonists are. Kidlit characters can be so developed that when you come across a flawed protagonist, they feel unlikable.

I thought these books did a good job of depicting true and flawed kids. Kids are not always likable and motivated, and it is really great to see protagonist who have attitude and make mistakes. Continue reading