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Profile of 2018 CSK Author Award winner Renée Watson

Renée Watson. Photo courtesy of the NAACP.

I was going to a gathering at Renée Watson’s apartment in Harlem, but I hadn’t met her before. I don’t like meeting new people, and I was a little worried that Renée might be all Mariah, coolly giving me “I don’t know her” vibes when I appeared on her doorstep.

Okay, no, I wasn’t really worried like that. Anyone who knew that the heartbeat of Renée’s picture book A Place Where Hurricanes Happen began in the poetry workshops she did with children in New Orleans after Katrina, or that Harlem’s Little Blackbird, about singer and performer Florence Mills, wasn’t so much about Mills’s talent as it was about how she “used her fame and fortune to help others” — anyone who knew Renée’s writing would know that she wouldn’t be petty.

And she wasn’t. I was the first to arrive at the gathering, with my black-eyed pea salad instead of my usual homemade sweets. (I was trying to seem healthy, and it was a B. Smith recipe — she’d never steered me wrong.) Renée welcomed me in, and within minutes, I’d made myself right at home. Because Renée always makes room.

* * *

May the places you call home nurture, inspire, and heal you.
—Renée Watson

I wonder what Portland looks like from the sky. Up there, rolling hills watch over the City of Roses, and the Fremont Bridge canopies over drivers coming and going from east to west. Up there it is just a normal winter day. In those clouds there are no traces of racial slurs being shouted in school halls, and the dust from the newly constructed buildings hasn’t risen that far.
This Side of Home

Renée’s novel This Side of Home was published soon after we met. And I devoured it, seeing my hybrid self, my twenty-first-century daughter, my Jamaican mother, and my global aunties all in this lyrical story of sisterhood, community, and heritage, of power and transformation. A story set in Portland, Oregon. I’d never been, and had no desire to go. As much as I loved Beezus and Ramona Quimby as well as some craft bloggers who made the city seem a haven for all who love handmade, I was equally wary of the Portlandia-ness of it all. But This Side of Home made me think I could give it a try, take a road trip there one day. Renée’s full-bodied story made me whisper “why not?” to myself. She made me think that I could find moments of home in a place where I’d assumed I would not be welcome. Her writing always makes me think that if there is trouble, beauty also will be there.

Renée never seems stressed, though I know she must be, sometimes. She is a black woman, after all. But she is not one to be frantic or frenzied. Sometimes Renée reminds me of a living Solange album. She is unapologetically black in a way that understands all of the beauty and power and nuance those words mean when you lovingly claim them. If she blesses your heart, that’s exactly, literally, what she means to do. And it’s what she does every day.

* * *

For me, one of my current inspirations is Renée Watson. Besides being a brilliant poet/writer she’s also the quiet force that saved Langston’s house, turning it into a space to honor him and our literary traditions.
—Jason Reynolds

One day in 2016, we got together and walked through Langston Hughes’s unoccupied Harlem brownstone, where he’d spent the last twenty years of his life. (I’d walked past it countless times, feeling a vague sense of self-pity because I, who loved Langston’s work, couldn’t get inside. Feeling annoyed that “somebody” wasn’t doing something to turn this place into a museum.) His typewriter sat on a mantle; some of his papers were strewn about casually, as though he’d just left the room to get us some snacks. The power and joy and music of the Harlem Renaissance whispered through the dusty but majestic and elegant rooms as Renée spoke quietly of her dream to open the home to a community of writers and artists and teachers and learners; to preserve and renew the spirit that had been, to encourage new ones to bloom. Her plans did not strike me as unrealistic, idealistic, or egoistic — they were big plans that considered small details; that came from an infinitely generous heart. Now I, Too Arts Collective is real, and through those visits, through donations of time, money, and energy, it is more than a museum. [See sidebar.] I’ve been in the house when people visit, from all over the world, and have watched them take deep and wide breaths, knowing that they’ve come home. Renée is that “somebody” who reminds us that we are, too.

* * *

To be seen — truly seen — is to feel that all parts of who I am are recognized not as compartmentalized pieces of myself, but blended truths of my identity.

I hope that my books provide space for young people to explore, and say, “Yeah, I feel seen.”
—Renée Watson

I lean into Renée’s words when I read them, take a trust-fall into her stories. I know I’ll be all right. Once, we met for coffee and I somehow managed to simultaneously fall out of my seat and knock over my water glass. I could not have done better if I had had years of training in the art of physical comedy. We laughed (and I marveled at the restraint of the guy sitting across from me who barely looked up from his laptop and didn’t crack the tiniest smile — I kept checking), and I didn’t feel the need to immediately perform another me to erase the memory of that fantastically clumsy one. I could just be, because even in small moments and ways, Renée doesn’t let the danger of the single story dominate the day. She tells vibrant, robust stories that honor pain and celebrate joy.

* * *

I tell students that sometimes you’re going to be really comfortable and other times you’re not going to want to share anything. You’re going to have to push yourself.
—Renée Watson

I wasn’t even going to open What Momma Left Me. There are limits to friendship, after all, and it looked like a Dead Mother Book, and I had a policy against those.

When I was younger, Momma read me bedtime stories. I always wanted her to skip to the end so I could know what would happen. Especially if there was a scary scene. I wanted to make sure that the characters would be okay. Momma would say, “You can’t truly enjoy a happy ending if you skip through all the bad parts.”
What Momma Left Me

I’d forgotten that Renée wouldn’t leave me hanging. I’d forgotten that she teaches the whole child of any age, that she works to both transform and be transformed. That she tells her students, “We’re going to talk about your joy and your pain. We’re going to celebrate, we’re going to find something to praise, we’re going to critique things, ask questions of the world, and make some demands on the world to be a better place.” In much the same way that Chloe x Halle moves smoothly from I could be a warrior to Yes, I am a warrior, Renée Watson’s work moves us through questions and answers and back again.

I’d forgotten that even when Renée’s books make me cry, I cry tears that also remind me that I’ll laugh again, that make me think that maybe I can close my eyes and taste the sun. That her stories make demands on her readers and challenge us, that she sees and respects us, that she might grow your heart and change your mind, all the while letting you know that you are also okay, just as you are.

* * *

Sometimes I just want to be comfortable in this skin, this body. Want to cock my head back and laugh loud and free, all my teeth showing, and not be told I’m too rowdy, too ghetto. Sometimes I just want to go to school, wearing my hair big like cumulus clouds without getting any special attention, without having to explain why it looks different from the day before. Why it might look different tomorrow. Sometimes I just want to let my tongue speak the way it pleases, let it be untamed and not bound by rules.

Maxine is right and wrong. Those girls are not the opposite of me. We are perpendicular. We may be on different paths, yes. But there’s a place where we touch, where we connect and are just the same.
Piecing Me Together

We can laugh together, cry together, be together, and repeat the cycle, sometimes in a different order. Renée Watson is an award-winning author. She is a poet, a performer, a revolutionary, a nurturer, a dreamer, a story-teller, a friend. She manages to have her feet firmly planted on the ground while her words lift us up beyond the skies. About her work she has said, “One thing that I hope resonates with young readers is the power of one’s voice. I hope young people close the book asking, ‘What can my voice do?’” I congratulate you, Renée, on winning this award for Piecing Me Together that honors the legacy of Coretta Scott King, “for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood.” But even more than that, I thank you. Thank you for reminding readers that we can have that same courage and determination, that we can take risks and still be loved, that we can love and be in pain, and still experience deep joy, with all our teeth showing. For letting us pick up the fragments of ourselves through story, fling them up to the heavens, and gather them up again, rearranged, revised, but still all of a piece. For reminding us that we are able to decide what our voices can do, and how gorgeously powerful we can be in our own skin, just as we are — because of who we are. Thank you.

Renée Watson at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Photo courtesy of The Schomburg Center.

I, Too Arts Collective

In 2016, Renée Watson launched a crowdfunding campaign using the hashtag #LangstonsLegacy, earning enough in thirty days to lease Langston Hughes’s Harlem brownstone. It now houses I, Too Arts Collective, named for one of Hughes’s best-known poems. Through creative writing for teens, monthly poetry salons, and an author conversation series, I, Too Arts Collective nurtures voices from underrepresented communities in the creative arts and provides programming for emerging writers. Visit itooarts.com.

From the July/August 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2018.

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich About Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is the author of 8th Grade Superzero (Levine/Scholastic) and coauthor of Two Naomis and the forthcoming Naomis Too (both Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins). She is a member of The Brown Bookshelf (thebrownbookshelf.com) and serves on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books.

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