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On Carrying On and Elizabeth Acevedo's Clap When You Land

Preparing for a flight, one must decide: checked bags or carry-on only? Much depends on the trip, of course (duration, destination), but some of the decision comes down to preference. How much baggage do we want to carry?

Elizabeth Acevedo's Clap When You Land brings the reader face-to-face with two young women, strangers to each other despite how much they share. When Flight 1112 from New York City to the Dominican Republic crashes, leaving no survivors, Camino and Yahaira learn the truth: sometimes you are forced to carry baggage you did not choose.

Returning to her novel-in-verse format (see also: The Poet X), Acevedo alternates the narrative between these two girls - Camino (in the DR) comes to life in three-line stanzas; Yahaida (in NYC) in couplets. Both have lost their father on the flight, and both will suffer mightily in their grief and in the way their lives will change as a result. But all is not grief and suffering, for this book is also a light shining on the twin beacons of love and sisterhood.

Camino lives in Sosúa with her Tia, her mother having died years before, and her father spending most of the year working in NYC. It is his annual trip home for the summer that is Camino's cause for celebration, the thing that has her skipping class to meet him at the airport. In his absence, she works alongside Tia as a healer-in-training, hoping one day to go to Columbia University and on to medical school. She wants to be an obstetrician, to help women in the birthing process, the phrase for which (dando a luz: giving to light) she has always loved.

Yahaida lives with her Mami and Papi, who was until last summer a trusted confidante and beloved teacher. He taught her to play chess, stoked that fire in her until she was among the best, competing in tournaments and surprising them all with her skill and her cunning. But a year ago, she quit. Quit playing chess, quit speaking to her father.

As the narrative oscillates between these two girls, the story that entwines them unfolds, and we begin to understand just how much they have in common. Besides the complications of family, they are also coming to terms with the realities of being a woman in this world. After an encounter with the threatening El Cero, Camino says, "Because in this moment, I am a girl a man stares at: / I am not a mourning girl. I am not a grieving girl. / I am not a parentless girl. I am not a girl without means. / I am not an aunt's charity case. I am not almost-alone. / None of those things matter." Yahaida understands this notion, having faced her own Thing That Happened, having learned from chess that "a queen is both: / deadly & graceful, poised & ruthless. / Quiet & cunning. A queen / offers her hand to be kissed, / & can form it into a fist / while smiling the whole damn time." Both girls have to learn what it looks like to carry on after such a great loss. Grieving and becoming, carrying on without their father, carrying on into womanhood.

Many verse novels move quickly, allowing young readers to clip through the pages without sacrificing their engagement with the characters or investment in the story. They can allow struggling readers a "long" book that doesn't feel that way as it reads. And while those are undoubtedly things to be celebrated, Clap When You Land is not that book. The poetry here is not just prose in poem form, not just short lines of dialogue. It is craft, it is art, it is a magic spell. Acevedo uses words to tell the story, yes, but more than that her words layer in rhythm and texture, music and force. This book demonstrates all that is possible in a novel-in-verse, and it does it in style. Like Tia, it knows the strength of words - those spoken and left unspoken. It knows that your words could "stunt unknown possibilities" just as it knows that words can speak into being a milagro.

Near the end of the book, Camino is about to board a plane, and describes the moment of looking back at her Tia: "I whisper blessings under my breath, / divide a piece of God / from my heart / for her to carry. / I know she does the same for me." And just like that, she brings it home: we will not always be able to choose our baggage, but we can choose what to carry. And in the choosing, we also learn how to carry on.


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