Revisiting Renée Watson

Children and YA Author and Educator
Headshot of a woman.

Photo credit: NAACP

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

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Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed.  Today we’re revisiting my 2019 interview with author Renée Watson. While Renée Watson is an acclaimed author of two picture books for children: A Place Where Hurricanes Happen and Harlem’s Little Blackbird; she’s even better known as a writer of young adult fiction with books like Piecing Me Together, which received both a Newbury Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award and Watch Us Rise, which was co-written with poet Ellen Hagan. Renée’s work mostly centers on the lived experiences of black girls and young women as they grapple with identity and place right at the intersection of race, class, and gender…but she doesn’t write message books. Renée Watson is first and foremost a storyteller and it is story that drives her work. She has a fine sense of the complexity of identity. She understands how fraught it can be for adolescent girls in general and for black girls living in an impoverished but loving homes and going to a ritzy school clear across town and how you’re seen seems change from street to street. That’s the dilemma faced by Jade in Renee Watson’s prize-winning book, Piecing Me Together.

Renee Watson: Piecing Me Together is about a girl named Jade. She lives in Portland, Oregon, which is where I grew up, and she feels very much brilliant and beautiful and seen and validated in her community, which is a predominantly black community, and when she goes out into the world, that’s when she feels broken and comes against stereotypes about her because of where she lives, because of her race, because she’s a girl. So, the story is about how can she remain whole no matter where she is.

Jo Reed: And it’s at the school that she attends, that these feelings of being perceived as broken really come up.

Renee Watson: Right. She attends a private school on the other side of town that is predominantly white and they care about her. Her teachers are very sincere and they want her to succeed, and so they give her a mentor, thinking that that’s the way to help her, and everyone thinks they’re going to get along. They’re both African-American women, so people just assume that they’re going to be fine together, but there’s a huge class difference, and so she doesn’t really see eye to eye with her mentor and instead really bonds with one of her friends, a white girl at the school, who is also economically poor. So, the story is kind of about what brings us together, what are our different identities. So, she is a black girl who is economically poor, who’s very talented. She’s also a big girl. The book is about the intersections of race, class, and gender.

Jo Reed: I really liked the complexity of it because you’re never just one thing.

Renee Watson: Right.

Jo Reed: And, that can shift, depending on what the circumstances are, and when she’s with her mentor, Maxine, class becomes a real issue.

Renee Watson: Right

Jo Reed: And, then when she’s with her white friend, Sam, she has to explain how race really factors into her life in ways that Sam just doesn’t understand and it seems like doesn’t want to in the beginning, though they resolve this.

Renee Watson: Yeah, I feel like a lot of that is my experience and the experience that so many of us have when we’re talking about where we kind of intersect and where we can see each other and identify with each other, where we bond, especially as women and friends. She’s so close to Sam and really, they are all they have at that school, because they really, really get each other. But then yeah, when her and Sam are outside of that school and in different environments, it becomes clear that there’s a lot of difference there, too, and that you can work through those differences. Hopefully, I hope the book speaks to that, for our young people to see that it’s worth trying with friends and not just to write people off because they are different.

Jo Reed: Right. Well, I think Jade’s big learning is not giving up but speaking up.

Renee Watson: Yeah, absolutely, that is a great way to put it. <Laughs>

Jo Reed: Well, there is a really great scene in the book, which I think speaks to a lot of what Jade is finding in that school, which is a very good school and it’s the kind of school many parents would aspire to be able to send their children to. But, she’s in class one day and students were asked to think of somebody who they don’t see that they take for granted.

Renee Watson: Yeah. So, the teacher is asking, “Who are the invisible people in your community?” And a lot of her peers, who are not only white, there are affluent black people, Latina people in the classroom as well, and a lot of them say their housekeepers, the people who clean, their nannies, people like that. And, Jade has this moment of, “Oh really? Because my mom is one.” So the fact that they have nannies and housekeepers working in their homes, she knows that her mother works as one, so there’s that moment of her realizing that she’s so very different from a lot of her classmates.

Jo Reed: Exactly, she realizes, “Oh my God, not only don’t they see my mother, but they all have a housekeeper.”

Renee Watson: Yeah, and it’s an interesting moment, too, because so before that, Jade is talking about how she misses her best friend, Lee Lee, who grows up in the same neighborhood as Jade and they’re very close but now they’re at these different schools. Lee Lee is going to the public school that is predominantly black, and I think there’s this assumption that that school doesn’t have a great education like this private school. But, as you’re in the book and you’re realizing the things that Lee Lee talks about that’s happening at her school, the way teachers are asking young people to write poetry in response to what’s happening in their world and in the neighborhood, I do think there’s something there about the quality of education that they’re getting at this public school that is under resourced but definitely has teachers who care and who are thinking about culturally relevant curriculum. While Jade is at a school that has all the bells and whistles kind of, but I don’t know that her teachers actually see her and are thinking about making education relevant to her beyond facts and the traditional way of teaching. So, I also kind of just wanted to explore that in the book as well.

Jo Reed: Oh, I found that fascinating.

Renee Watson: Lee Lee doesn’t have the same opportunities, but she’s definitely getting a good education.

Jo Reed: Yeah, there’s no question and I thought that was a really interesting and quite unexpected turn in the book. You know, it really is such a complicated thing because, you know, I have family and friends who grew up in the Projects, and let me tell you, they were very eager to get out of the Projects, which does not mean there wasn’t people there who love them and they don’t go back and they don’t visit. But, it’s like you do want to move up and move out, but you don’t want to have a wall come down and say, “Everything there is bad,” because it’s not.

Renee Watson: Yeah, absolutely. I say this often, and I hope that this came through, especially-- she makes collages. Jade is a budding artist and she is taking all these different pieces of scraps and newspaper articles and things that people throw away and disregard to make beauty out of, and that is this also kind of extended metaphor through the book of broken places not only being broken, but that there’s beauty there too. And there’s love and there’s maybe economic poverty, but they can be rich in so many other things and wanting to show the kind of the balance of that and respect these places that have many layers to them that sometimes are only seen through one lens.

Jo Reed: I love the picture you painted of her home and her relationship with her mother and her uncle. I mean, she comes from a very loving, very close household.

Renee Watson: Yeah, I love her mom. I really do.

Jo Reed: I do, too. I really do.

Renee Watson: I’m so grateful that my editor really helped me deepen her a little bit. In the beginning, the mother wasn’t so-- she just wasn’t on the page as often, and so when I went back to do edits, I made her a bigger character, and I’m really glad that we did that edit, because I grew to love her, and yeah, I know so many parents like her. I was a mentor and I’ve been a mentor, so I’ve been on both...

Jo Reed: I was going to ask you about that.

Renee Watson: ...ends of that relationship and I know so many hardworking, loving parents who just can’t come to every meeting or every time the school’s open for a performance.

Jo Reed: Right, because they’re at work.

Renee Watson: Right, they’re working. They are taking care of business and making sure that their children can eat and have a place to sleep, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care. And so yeah, she fiercely loves Jade and has big, wild dreams for her daughter and is very hands on. So yeah, thank you for saying that.

Jo Reed: No, not at all. Now, tell me about your experience both as a mentee and as a mentor.

Renee Watson: Sure. So, I went to a school called Jefferson High School and at the time, I was there in the nineties and it was the school that people literally would say to your face, “Nothing good comes out of this school.”

Jo Reed: Oh, my gosh.

Renee Watson: Yeah, so many times, things would happen maybe in the neighborhood where the school was, but if it was reported on the news or in the newspaper, they would always mention that it was near Jefferson High School. We just had to be mentioned in any type of negative press about violence or anything unhealthy. So, I grew up with that cloud over me, and with well-meaning people coming in to our neighborhood who did not live there, who wanted to help us, and sometimes it felt like they were trying to save us or rescue us or take us out, and I never saw my home in deficit. I loved my neighbors, I was not afraid to live on my block, I was proud of my school. My sisters had gone there, and I was so tired of adults coming into my life, trying to fix me and never asking a question, like, “What do you need? What do you want? How is it here?” so that we could actually have a real conversation about what was happening in my life. And, it wasn’t until maybe my senior year I think, or junior year, that a teacher really, I feel, saw me and really invited me into this mentoring relationship with her that felt healthy and that she wasn’t trying to fix me, that she was coming in to walk alongside me and help me figure out what it is I wanted to do in life. And, so that was early memories of people coming in to help, and then I became a mentor and one of the places that I worked at was my former high school. And I remember sitting in a meeting with all the adults, all the mentors, and we’re getting the stats on the young people and on the neighborhood, and the way that they were talking about the students and the space, I really had to raise my hand and say, “I’m sorry, I just want to say I grew up here. You all are talking about my home. I still live in this neighborhood, so let’s just pause a moment and not only focus on the things that need to change. There is beauty here, and I’m not interested in only having field trips where we’re taking kids away from where they live, but let’s explore this neighborhood and the history that’s already here.” And, then since then, just trying to advocate for programs that work with young people to really think about how do you come alongside what’s already happening? How do you figure out what is there that is working, that is beautiful, that is strong, and how do you make it stronger.

Jo Reed: Tell me a little bit more about your growing up. Were you an only child like Jade? Do you come from a large family?

Renee Watson: Yeah, I’m so opposite of Jade. I am the youngest of five children and I am not a visual artist at all. I always joke and say that no one would buy any of my books if I was the one designing the covers. My skill is definitely writing, not anything artistic in that way, but I’ve always been a writer. I say this often too. When I was a very young child, second grade, I wrote a twenty-one page story.

Jo Reed: Oh, my goodness.

Renee Watson: Yeah, and my teacher, bless her heart for reading that handwriting, said, “You’re going to be a writer one day, we’ve got to get you journals, we’ve got to get you notebooks,” and I’ve just been so fortunate to have teachers who saw that talent and nurtured it and really encouraged my mom to put me in courses during the summertime to learn the craft of writing. So, I really have been writing my whole life. In middle school, I wrote a play. It became the spring production that the school put on. So, I definitely took myself serious as a writer when I was a kid and loved theater too. I was into acting in plays, writing plays, and fascinated with that world of make believe and how things can come to life on a stage. So, I really connected to words as a child and had teachers who made space in their classroom for me to be creative. I’m so glad that I grew up in an era where creative writing was taken seriously. It was taught and we really would write stories and get feedback from our teachers in a very thoughtful way. It’s definitely one of the reasons why I’m a writer today, is because I had teachers who really saw me and encouraged me to pursue it.

Jo Reed: What were your favorite books when you were growing up? What did you like to read?

Renee Watson: So, I mostly grew up reading poetry actually. Poetry is my first love. I grew up attending a church in Portland, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, and we would have to recite poems and scripture on Easter Sunday, Christmas, for special occasions. I was always called on to be one of the people in the programs to recite, and so I grew up learning words by heart and loving poetry, loving rhyme. And, so Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton are some of the early poets that I started reading, and then of course I did read-- I read the Ramona series. She grew up in Portland.

Jo Reed: You would have to, right?

Renee Watson: So yeah, you have to know Ramona and I loved her. She was so feisty and just a different character at the time, you know, where you get to see this girl being very playful and talking back, I mean just things that I could never do in my real life. She was so much more adventurous than I was, so I loved the Ramona series. And in high school, I got exposed to Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison and started reading adult fiction because of my English teacher. She was giving me books that weren’t necessarily geared toward high school students, but she knew that I loved to read and that I was a writer, so she was introducing me to all these other adult writers.

Jo Reed: What inspired you, Renee, to write for young adults?

Renee Watson: You know, it wasn’t intentional. I have been working with young people, even as a young person. When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher had me go to the freshmen class and teach them poetry. I would use the poem that I wrote as a sample and take them through a writing workshop, and then when I was in college, all of my jobs to get through school were in arts and Ed organizations, nonprofits that hire writers to go into the school. So, my world has been with young people always and I have so many of their stories in my mind, and so when I sit down to write, that is what comes up, is the young people that I’ve met over the years. So, I think that’s why right now I’m writing for young people, but I don’t know that I always will. You know, I want to do adult fiction. I want to write a poetry collection, so we’ll see where my career goes. But right now, it’s focused on young people because I’ve had such rich interactions with young people and when I sit down to write, those are the stories that kind of bubble up for me. I also think just practically speaking, teenagers are so complex and they are so passionate and extreme, so they just make good characters too, because there’s just so much emotion to work with. They really, really love something or they really, really hate something and to write with that kind of deep passionate emotion is also just a lot of material to pull from.

Jo Reed: Yeah, I love YA fiction. I was on your website and you’re also an educator. You do a lot of work with children, as you’ve mentioned, but you’re also a performer.

Renee Watson: Yes. I miss the stage. I don’t do it as much as I used to.

Jo Reed: And, tell me how this all comes together for you.

Renee Watson: I love the written word and I do think there’s something about reading it and writing in the margins and really connecting in this very personal, private way with words and paper. But, there is also something about bringing those words to life on stage and as a performer and as an audience member, experiencing a person on stage, acting and reciting and performing text. So, I love to do both and I find that some young people who are a little maybe resistant or reluctant to write, once they see spoken word poetry or they witness a poetry slam and they see the theatrics of it and all that passion, sometimes that is inspiring for them and then they are-- they go back and they write, and they’re really writing because they can’t wait to perform it. And you know I’ve had it work both ways, where I do the performance to get young people hooked and to write, and then I have young people who love to write but would never get up and say their poem out loud, and I think there’s something about pushing those students too and helping them think about, “Well, what do you want to say to the world? You did the first brave thing by writing it down, but let’s take it further and open our mouths and say it out loud and put it on stage.” So, those two things, performance and writing, have always kind of gone hand in hand with me. Yeah, I love to do both and I like to help young people get better at both, at writing and also speaking up and raising their voices.

Jo Reed: You moved across the country to New York City.

Renee Watson: I did. I came to New York for school. I went to The New School and that’s where I studied writing for children and creative arts therapy, which really was my main focus, was using the arts to help young people cope with trauma, and that’s what brought me back to school, and I didn’t come to stay. I thought I was coming to school and I was going to finish my degree and go back to Portland, but I got published my last semester of school. I was in an Adult Ed program, so I was in my late twenties at the time and I signed my first contract with Random House for a picture book about New Orleans. And so I thought, well let me give New York a try, let’s see what happens, and now I don’t know, thirteen years later, I’m still here. So, I did move to New York. I used to not say that. I used to say, “Oh, I’m staying here for a while,” but New York is home. Harlem is home for me and so is Portland. My family is mostly still there, so I go back often and visit and I’m still very connected to the schools that I attended and the community that I grew up in. So, anytime I have a book out, I make sure I go back home and share it with the community and visit schools there. So, I feel like both Harlem and Portland are my two homes.

Jo Reed: Your latest book, Watch Us Rise, is co-written with poet Ellen Hagan.

Renee Watson: Yes.

Jo Reed: I want the backstory to this.

Renee Watson: Okay, I am very good friends with Ellen in my real life. We know each other. We’ve known each other since I moved to New York. We just were fast friends. We met by way of being teaching artists in New York City. We both taught at DreamYard and at Community Word Project and when you’re co-teaching and planning lessons together, you’re getting a bite to eat afterwards and you just bond because so much is happening in the classroom and you’re spending a lot of time together. So, we became really good friends and had collaborated on poems. We’ve worked with young people and helped them put collaborative pieces together, and I’ve just always wanted to do something bigger with her. And, so I ended up leaving DreamYard and Community Word because of my writing and just didn’t get to see her as much, missed her, and so I sent her a text. This was in 2015. I was on a book tour and just missing New York and missing my people, and I sent her a text to say, “Hey, we should write something together, we should write a book together,” and she was like, “Absolutely, yes let’s do it.” And, it didn’t happen right away. It took us a while to figure out when and what it would be about, but that’s kind of the backstory, is that we are friends and we wanted to write something that really focused on friendships, on activism, on young girls who won’t be silent and who are very bold and really wanting to use art to get their voices out and to get their voices heard, which it’s so much like the young people that we’ve taught over the years. So, it’s very much, in a way, like a tribute to the girls that have inspired us, who we’ve gotten to know over the years, and definitely a statement about friendship being the thing that I think keeps us moving. This world is hard to live in and the girls have their own personal things they’re going through, but also all the drama at school with sexism and racism, and how do you keep fighting and overcoming that if you don’t have people to lean on and to go through it with you? So, we wanted it to very much be about the feminist movement, but also about the solid friendship as a foundation of the movement.

Jo Reed: Was it fun to write with somebody?

Renee Watson: It was the best, yeah. Writing is so...

Jo Reed: Hard.

Renee Watson: ...isolating. It’s very hard and you’re by yourself a lot.

Jo Reed: Yeah, exactly.

Renee Watson: And, so I normally don’t get feedback until I’m showing it to my editor. So, what was great is that Ellen and I plotted and did this huge outline with Post-It notes and we had the plot written out and then we would work, and we’d set a timer, write for forty-five minutes, write for an hour, and then take a break and share with each other and get immediate feedback and kind of check in, “Okay, if that’s what you’re doing, then I’ll add this in my chapter.” And, so that was great because I never share immediately as I’m working on something, you know, so it was really nice to have someone to go to for when, “This is not working, what do you think I should do?” or to have someone like, “Yes, this is great, let’s keep going.” That felt really, really good.

Jo Reed: I bet. I bet. I really liked how much friendship is at the center of both Piecing Me Together and Watch Us Rise. And, the other thing I really love what you do is these aren’t message books. They really are great stories.

Renee Watson: Thank you. I appreciate that. I really try to write a good story first and then the message is kind of secondary to the, just a good plot and a good story.

Jo Reed: You know, another thing I really loved about Piecing Me Together is that you’ve described Jade as dark-skinned, as plus-sized, but it’s not an issue. It’s just what it is.

Renee Watson: Yes. Yeah, and I want more books like that. Of just letting people exist in their skin, however that means, without that being what the story is about.

Jo Reed: Exactly. Yeah. I would like to hear about the I, Too Arts Collective.

Renee Watson: Oh, so growing up in Portland and loving poetry as a kid, when I first moved to New York, one of the first places I wanted to go to was Harlem and I wanted to see all the places that Langston Hughes wrote about in his poetry. And I went to Harlem and I knew where his brownstone was and found my way there and I thought it would be a museum, much like the King Center in Atlanta has restored Dr. King’s home, his childhood home. You can go in and see it and it’s all set up like it used to be, and I thought it would be something like that, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t open to the public. It was just the brownstone with a plaque that acknowledged who lived there, but I wanted more. I wanted to go inside. I thought it would be a space where people could come in and maybe learn about him or create their own poems, and this is many years ago when I first came to New York. So, I kind of just tucked that away. I was like, “Man, that’s too bad.” But, over the years as Brooklyn got gentrified and Portland, Oregon too, where I grew up, and then happening in Harlem, I just got worried that we are going to start losing these sacred spaces that have so much history and I just didn’t want to lose that space. So, in 2016, in the summer, I launched a campaign called Langston’s Legacy, where we raised money to lease the brownstone where he lived, and he lived there the last twenty years of his life. We originally were hoping to purchase it and have been working with the owner to work out some way to do that and in the meantime are leasing from her. And, I was just so touched, so many people supported and came alongside to help me do this. I started a nonprofit called I, Too Arts Collective, which is taken from his poem, “I, Too, Sing America,” and we really-- after forming the board and meeting and thinking about what did we want this space to be, I really thought, “You know, we don’t want it to be a museum.” I want people to come and continue his legacy and create, and so we have poetry workshops for young people and literary events and readings and book launch parties and all types of programing for the local community. We officially opened in 2017, so we are celebrating our two year anniversary. And, I’m just so proud and excited and in this kind of mindset of, “Okay, what’s next? What do we want to do? How do we want to expand?” And, so once we purchase and do some restoration of the space, I really want to open the second floor to people who don’t live in New York. Being a person who did not grow up in New York, I know what it’s like to feel like, “Man, everything happens in New York City.” So, I want to make sure writers and artists have access to the space. We’re going to start a fellowship program where folks can apply to come stay at the brownstone if they’re working on a project in line with our mission and our values and they’ll have studio space to create and we’ll just ask them to give back to the community in some way by doing a workshop with young people or a lecture. So yeah, we’re dreaming and planning out what these next few years will look like, but it’s happening. It’s been two years of solid programing and we’ve had some living legends come into the space, which has also been really gratifying and so great that our young people are meeting working, living writers are artists.

Jo Reed: Absolutely. This is a great project for so many reasons. Oh Renee, it was such a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much.

Renee Watson: Yes, it was so nice talking with you, too. Thank you.

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Jo Reed: That was my 2019 interview with author Renée Watson —we were talking about two of her YA titles: the prize-winning Piecing Me Together and Watch Us Rise co-written with Ellen Hagan: both are published by Bloomsbury. You’ve been listening to Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at And follow us on Apple Podcasts. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

In this 2019 interview, author and educator Renée Watson talks about her prize-winning YA titles Piecing Me Together and Watch Us Rise (co-written with poet Ellen Hagan.) Both look at the lived experiences of Black girls as they grapple with identity right at the intersection of race, class, and gender. But Watson is a storyteller not a sociologist, and, as in life, her characters can and do respond in unexpected ways. In this podcast, we also discuss what goes into writing for young adults; how her own experiences are reflected in Piecing Me Together; the joy of collaborative work; and Watson's own trajectory as a writer, educator, and performer.

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