This book is changing me
I read this book because the American Library Association awarded it the 2018 Coretta Scott King Award, and also named it a Newberry Honor Book.
First, though, I read the John Newberry Award winner, which is Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, this book reminds me of the amazing story Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t mean that as the highest sort of compliment. I actually meant that I didn’t find as much new insight or thinking in this book as I had hoped.
A year ago, I read the 2017 John Newberry Award winner, which was The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill. It surprised and entertained and touched, and I loved it.
Back to Piecing Me Together.
I started reading the book on a gray Tuesday morning while my college students were taking their mid-term exams. Though I was reasonably present for those students, I was quickly captivated by Watson’s story of Jade Butler, an 11th-grade girl who believes she must ‘escape’ from her neighborhood to find the success that has eluded her mother and uncle, and many of their poor, mostly black and Latino, neighbors.
When I learned the Spanish word for succeed, I thought it was kind of ironic that the word exit is embedded in it. Like the universe was telling me that in order for me to make something of this life, I’d have to leave home, my neighborhood, my friends.
So how is Piecing Me Together changing me?
I am surrounded by ‘programs’ that try to ‘help’ those around us. Perhaps you are, too.
Increasingly, I have been trying simply to build friendships with anyone and everyone around me, especially those who don’t look like me. I’m trying to build a more colorful and complex and interesting and connected social circle around me. I’m not trying to change anyone else; if anything, I’m trying to listen and just be present and build real relationships.
Jade Butler is piecing me together, too.
Jade makes a strong case that she is more than someone who needs help. Yes, she needs and wants help. But more than that, she wants to be seen as who she is in total, not just as one piece. She has gifts and wants to give. She has talents and wants the chance to make a difference.
This time it’s not a program offering something I need, but it’s about what I can give.
Piecing Me Together includes collaging art
Jade Butler takes trash and old photos and dropped newspapers and makes them into collages, expressing who she is and what she sees. She is taken with the story of York, the slave who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their journeys. She observes a girl beaten by police. She sees her city, Portland, Oregon. She sees herself.
She also learns about other collagists, including Romare Bearden and Mickalene Thomas. I have loved collages for many years, including years with our boys as toddlers, poking their chubby fingers into the holes of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. But I never thought about collages as powerful, until now.
Of the art I’ve been making lately, this is the only one where I’ve included myself. I am with York, both of us with maps in our hands. Both of us black and traveling. Black and exploring. Both of us discovering what we are really capable of.
And the story is set in Portland, where I have fond memories of books and food and cycling across bridges
Watson’s novel explores Portland, which connected me to Jade’s journeys, though I rambled around the city as a tourist. When Jade is surprised and intrigued and inspired by what she finds in Powell’s Bookstore, I can relate. You just have to go there.
And Jade smells the Alder Street food carts and salivates over Voodoo Doughnuts. Been there, done that, and would love to do it again.
But Jade recognizes that her ‘program’ takes her around Portland, while the programs for ‘others’ take them abroad. She finally develops the courage to find her voice and begin advocating for herself, with great results, for herself and for her community.
If you want to read something lovely and gritty and inspiring and reckoning, give Piecing Me Together a chance to change you. It is changing me.
Thank you, Renee Watson.
And a final word about the book’s awards
In my view, this book has earned every award it receives.
But also in my view, this book is not just an amazing book written by an African-American author. It is an amazing book, period.
I would have awarded it the John Newberry Medal.