Renee Watson. Wow!
I’ve been a fan of Renee Watson since I read her novel, Piecing Me Together (Bloomsbury, 2017). Her young adult novel won the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King Award. Her novel also was a Newbery Honor title. Frankly, I didn’t know of Watson’s work until she won that award. I was really impressed by how much I learned through the story, proving that Watson’s work is not only for young people, but also for those of us in later life as well.
I shared my take on Renee Watson’s novel in a post written at that time, which you can read here.
I was thrilled to learn that Renee Watson was joining our local Bookmarks festival as a guest speaker. She participated in a panel discussion titled “Middle School Stinks” with local author Stacy McAnulty and novelist Ali Benjamin.
Stacy McAnulty has written The World Ends in April, a novel posing the question as to which is scarier: middle school or the forecasted end of the world? Ali Benjamin’s latest is The Next Great Paulie Fink, written about the new kid in school learning about a legendary kid who came before, and learning about herself at the same time.
Renee Watson’s Some Places More than Others
Renee Watson’s latest novel is about middle-school Amara, who lives in Portland and longs to visit her extended (and estranged?) family in Harlem. Amara is almost 12, and doesn’t understand why her parents, especially her mom, won’t let her visit them and learn more about her heritage.
I’m reading this one currently and look forward to sharing my thoughts with you after I finish the book!
Thoughts from the authors
All three authors were funny and thoroughly engaging during their panel discussion. They talked about their own experiences in middle school, the challenges of writing, and some realities of the publishing process. A few key takeaways:
- All of the authors regularly ask for input on their writing from young people, while they develop their stories. “Does this sound like you?” Renee Watson will ask.
- Writing can be hard. Stacy McAnulty uses candy as a reward when things get tough. “Every 50 words I get a gummy bear. When it’s really bad, every 10 words.” Renee Watson drinks tea while she writes and develops a unique music playlist for every novel. Ali Benjamin closes her laptop and writes by hand when she needs to get unstuck.
- Renee Watson writes from curiously about things or places. “My characters are always teaching me something.” For Some Places More than Others, she decided Amara would be a sneaker head (which Watson is not), and so she had to learn about Nikes at a whole new level. All of the authors caution that you can spend lots of time researching when you are trying to put off your writing, so be careful!
- All writers can learn from reading poetry about the economy of words and how to think critically about every word on the page.
- The authors have varying levels of input over what art goes on the cover of their books. Renee Watson was able to insist that Amara is a bigger girl of color, and that the landscape reflects that of Amara’s hometown, Portland. Stacy McAnulty has less ability to influence specifics, but does not want her characters on book covers, so that readers can use their imaginations. She also likes long book titles! Ali Benjamin wanted her latest cover to look like a puzzle or a treasure hunt, so I’m guessing that is a clue to one of the themes in her book.
The authors also talked about the challenges of incorporating gritty, realistic themes into books targeted at middle grades and school libraries. As with the book covers, the authors have varying degrees of ability to influence these points. It seemed to me that Renee Watson has the greatest ability to include characters and themes important to her. She closed her talk by saying “I want young people to have books that reflect the world that they, and we, live in.”