When I finish Renee Watson’s totally engaging new young adult novel, THIS SIDE OF HOME, and leave the narrator, Maya Younger, and her identical twin, Nikki, in their changing Portland neighborhood, I will put it on my bookshelf next to Renee’s three other great books: WHAT MOMMA LEFT ME, A PLACE WHERE HURRICANES HAPPEN, and HARLEM’S LITTLE BLACKBIRD published in 2010 and 2012.
Last week, I celebrated with Renee first over brunch and again at her NYC launch on Wednesday evening at the Schomberg Center where she shared the stage with Jacqueline Woodson author of BROWN GIRL DREAMING. They read from their books, spoke about their backgrounds and their writing processes, answered questions from the audience, and inspired us all.
In 2006, I had the pleasure of being Renee’s instructor at the New School. Her first submission—about a lie she told as a child–blew me away. When I read it aloud, everyone in class was Wow-ed. Afterwards, I told Renee I thought she had a voice for children’s literature. Up to that point, she said she just knew she liked to write and wrote good stories but never had a focus for a specific genre/age. Soon after that, she started writing WHAT MOMMA LEFT ME.
During brunch, Renee mentioned that my class taught her that less is more. “That kind of brevity definitely helped me (and continues to help me) when writing children’s lit.”
Renee’s day job involves training teachers to incorporate art—mainly poetry—into their curriculum and using poetry to help young people process trauma, speak out against injustice, and celebrate where they came from. She’s often called on to do special workshops with children who’ve suffered loss (Hurricane Katrina, Haiti Earthquake, kids with HIV, in foster homes…). Lucky them to have Renee in their orbit!
Lucky me! Renee was a terrific student and is now a terrific friend. She has always been a wonderful writer with a beautiful, strong voice and ever so much heart.