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RENEE WATSON is the acclaimed author of the teen novel, This Side of Home, and two picture books: Harlem's Little Blackbird and A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, which was featured on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Her middle grade novel, What Momma Left Me debuted as an ABA New Voices Pick. She lives in New York City. Follow her on Instagram
Photo credit: Shawnte Sims
February 2021 Book of the Month | Renée Watson is one of my favourite contemporary YA writers and her latest novel, Love is a Revolution, embodies everything that makes her stories shine - it’s honest, relatable, driven by an inspiring Black girl, and sparkles with a self-empowerment vibe. Nala’s summer plans are sent reeling when she goes to an open mic night for her “cousin-sister-friend” Imani’s birthday, an event organised by the Harlem Inspire community project Imani is heavily involved with. Here Nala fall head-over-heels for committed activist Tye and finds herself telling little white lies to impress him - that she’s vegan, that she’s running a big project at her Jamaican Grandma’s Senior Living residence. Talking of Grandma, I especially loved the book’s beautiful portrayal of inter-generational relationships - the shared wisdom, the compassion and kindness, the sense of family and community, and Nala’s body positive exuberance is uplifting too. Her disorientation and self-doubt derive from elsewhere, like not knowing what she wants to do with her life, and feeling she’s not good enough, not quite worthy of Tye’s love. Though fireworks explode when Nala’s fibs are found out, after taking Grandma’s advice on-board to the empowering soundtrack of her favourite musician, she discovers that self-love and self-care are forms of revolution - they’re her route to transformative self-acceptance through embracing who she really is.
August 2020 Book of the Month | From the author of exceptional YA novels like What Momma Left Me and Piecing Me Together comes this beautiful bighearted story for 7+ year-olds – a true treasure about everyday family life, being yourself and making the best of things, with an unforgettable African American heroine at its luminous heart. Keen cook Ryan and her family live in Portland, Oregon, and she’s not best pleased when they have to move to a smaller house as a result of her dad’s new job paying less than the one he lost a while back. But Ryan’s not the kind of girl to complain for long, or to let anything get her down. She’s one of life’s thinkers and doers, whose loving parents have infused her with a life-affirming sense of self-worth and pride in her heritage: “I remember what Mom always tells me, how she named me Ryan because she wanted me to feel powerful, to remember that I am a leader every time someone calls my name. Dad is always telling me our people come from royalty, that my ancestors lived in Africa and were kings and queens and inventors and hard workers. Mom tells me their strength is running through my veins.” Told through manageable interlinked vignettes, this soulfully illustrated gem - the first in a series - sits in the tradition of Judy Blume’s young fiction and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series, but it’s also refreshingly unique. The pitch-perfect evocation of Ryan’s grace and warmth, and her positive perspective will entertain and inspire young readers, while helping them understand the world and handle change.
Renée Watson’s remarkable What Momma Left Me is a wise and nourishing story rooted in themes of resilience, healing and love. With high school on the horizon, African American Serenity is struggling to piece her life back together following the brutal death of her beloved momma and the loss of her dad. Amidst this sensitively evoked maelstrom, Serenity finds hope in the form of her wholesome grandparents, church (where Grandpa is a pastor), brother Danny and new friend and confidante Maria, a bright beam of light who harbours her own bleak secrets. Serenity handles her grief, set-backs and challenging dilemmas with dignity, her grandparents a constant, calming presence as they impart wisdom, such as this nod to Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ poem: “That’s why we say ‘we rise’, children. There have been lots of things that have tried to keep us down. But we’ve got resilience running through these veins.”Empathetically charting Serenity’s grief, first romance and growing up (what Serenity does to save Maria from an unsafe situation shows strength and wisdom way beyond her years), this huge-hearted novel comes highly recommended for its honesty, depth and engaging readability, along with Watson’s Piecing Me Together and Watch Us Rise (the latter co-authored with Ellen Hagan).
September 2019 Book of the Month | Amara knows exactly what she wants for her 12th birthday: to visit her father’s family in New York. She understands it will be very different to Beavertown, Oregon, the small town she’s grown up in, but can’t wait to explore the big city and get to know her family properly. The trip is eye-opening in lots of ways as she learns more about her father and his childhood, about her family, and even her own history. Renée Watson shows us that families are complicated, that it’s never too late to change or make amends, and that we can all carry on learning even as we grow up. Quiet, though full of drama, and skilfully told, this is a touching and thought-provoking story with well-drawn, engaging characters; a book that will make a real impact on its reader.
One of our 2018 Books of the Year | So resolves main character Jade in this timely, inspirational novel that will surely motivate many young women to do the same. Talented collage artist Jade is a bright teen with her eyes wide open to the world. She wants to learn Spanish “to give myself a way out. A way in. Because language can take you places”, and she has a scholarship to attend a mostly-white private school. While this is a great achievement and will open doors for her, Jade is acutely aware of how different she is from her classmates, not only because she’s black but also “because their mothers are the kind of people who hire housekeepers, and my mother is the kind of person who works as one”. Initially reluctant to accept a place on a programme for “at-risk” girls (she’s fed up of being labeled as someone who needs help), Jade takes it because “girls like me, with coal skin and hula-hoop hips, whose mommas barely make enough money to keep food in the house, have to take opportunities every chance we get”. Maxine, her mentor, takes her out to eat and buys her art books, but clued-up Jade is pretty sure that flaky Maxine could do with learning some life lessons herself, plus she creates some rifts between Jade and her mom. In fact, everywhere she turns, Jade encounters conflict, leading her to wonder “if a black girl’s life is only about being stitched together and coming undone…I wonder if there’s ever a way for a girl like me to feel whole”. But one thing’s for sure, Jade’s not going to let anything distract her from being a success and making a difference. At once moving and motivational, this incisive novel tackles issues of race, class and identity with power and depth, and Jade is one of those extraordinary characters you’d love to meet in real life - we could all learn a lot from Jade.
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