March 27, 2017

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Interview: Renée Watson on YA Novel “Piecing Me Together”

Renee WatsonThe acclaimed author Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together (Bloomsbury; Feb. 14, 2017) explores the strong relationships among Black women, poverty and privilege, and the power of art. SLJ chats with Watson about her stirring YA novel.

What inspired you to write Jade’s story?

I was inspired by all of the friendships I’ve had with women. From being a daughter, a friend, a mentee, a mentor, a teacher—I’ve had such meaningful and complicated relationships. I drew from several of these relationships to write Piecing Me Together.

I was also deeply moved by the 2014 NAACP report “Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity.” The report explored the barriers African American girls face. One major barrier was the pervasiveness of stereotypes that adversely impact the educational experiences of African American girls. The report confirmed with statistics and personal stories what I already felt in my own schooling experiences and what I witnessed as a mentor. It was validating to have facts back up what my heart knew. I wanted to bring those experiences to the page.

So much about the novel is about dichotomies and how the protagonist navigates the two worlds in which she participates: her neighborhood and her school, giving and receiving, mentor and mentee, black and white. Why do you think these were themes that needed to be explored in Piecing Me Together?

These themes rose to the surface after many drafts of writing. I didn’t necessarily set out to write about all of those dichotomies but as they emerged, I didn’t want to shy away from them. I think young people want to talk about race, class, and social issues, but so many times they learn from adults that those conversations are taboo or too uncomfortable to have. By exploring these themes in Piecing Me Together, I hope readers and teachers find a space where they can talk about these issues in a constructive, meaningful way.

My favorite scenes were when Jade interacted with the people she loved: Maxine helping Jade with her hair; Jade’s mom teaching Maxine how to cook; Jade planning the open mic event with her friends. How and why did you decide to make these relationships the center of this novel?

I really wanted to write a book that explored how we, as women, heal one another, how we challenge one another. I have three sisters and so many strong, brilliant women as friends who have been anchors for me. I wanted Jade to have an abundance of love, especially since the counselor at her school sees Jade as someone who is lacking, who is in need. Jade doesn’t have a lot of money, but she has a wealth of family and friends, talent, and ambition. This is where she finds her strength.

It was also important for me to write about girl characters who are not catty or bratty or whose main goal is not to get a guy. I wanted to focus on friendship and give space in the story for the women to be their own heroes, to feel content and confident without the approval of male characters.

Readers learn about York, a slave who traveled with Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea on their historical voyage. What kind of research did you do to include these historical figures within the narrative? Why were they so important to Jade’s story?

I grew up in Portland, OR, and like Jade, I saw markers throughout Oregon that acknowledged Lewis and Clark’s journey. York and Sacagawea are not on these markers, and they are rarely talked about as being a part of the voyage. I personally had real questions about that, and given Jade’s desire to travel and her curiosity about how race and class impact who gets what, I thought she’d be intrigued by York’s story, and the more I researched, the more it became a mirror of Jade’s experience—receiving opportunities that come at a great cost, feeling invisible, having freedom but still feeling powerless.

I did quite a bit of research at Oregon Historical Society and watched documentaries about York, Lewis, and Clark.

piecing-me-togetherWith which character did you identify the most? Which was the most difficult to write?

The character I have the most in common with is Jade. Though this book is not autobiographical, there are many instances where Jade’s experience overlaps with my own. I know what it’s like for someone to come into my neighborhood with the goal of taking me out of it, to show me that there’s more to life than my small world. While those intentions usually came from a good place, they made me feel like my neighborhood wasn’t good enough, like I needed to be fixed. I drew on those feelings to write about Jade’s disappointment in the mentorship program. I also relate to Jade’s skin tone and size, and it was important for me to write a character who is dark-skinned and plus size without the story being solely about that. There’s no bullying here because of Jade’s weight or low self-esteem because of her looks. She is affirmed by her family and sees herself as beautiful, and that is very much how I grew up.

The most challenging character to write was Mrs. Parker. So much of this novel is about intention and impact. Mrs. Parker would consider herself an ally, a socially conscious person, but even with her care and concern for Jade, she reinforces stereotypes and doesn’t truly see Jade without labels, and when it matters most she doesn’t stand up for Jade. As a white woman and an important staff member at the school, Mrs. Parker has power, and she doesn’t always do a good job of examining her privilege and how her decisions sometimes hurt Jade. I wanted to humanize Mrs. Parker and not make her a villain, but I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t excusing her behavior. I had to really work at making her more complicated and nuanced than wrong or right, mean or nice.

The Black Lives Matter movement is alluded to several times in the book, and Jade organizes an event to benefit a woman who was a victim of violence from law enforcement. Why was it important for you to include this element in this novel?

While writing and revising this book, two disturbing videos went viral: a South Carolina school officer slammed a teenage black girl onto the classroom floor, and a Texas officer, who showed up to respond to calls about a fight at a pool party, yanked a 14-year-old girl to the ground, dug his knees in her back, and unholstered his gun.

There are too many stories to count of instances where black people are mistreated, abused, or killed by police officers. Unfortunately, this is a part of our young people’s world, and I thought it should be included in the novel because the teens reading the book will have similar situations where one night they go to sleep and the next morning there is news of another name to hashtag.

I knew I wanted to include the experience of what it is like to hear these stories in sound bites and have to keep going on about your day as if nothing happened, as if it’s normal. In the book, Jade refuses to take this as normal and, more important, she wants to do more than tweet about it. She wants—needs—to take action.

This work has a lovely cover by Bryan Collier, which reflects Jade’s talent of creating collage art. Did you have any input on the cover design?

I am so proud of this cover. I have admired Bryan’s work for many, many years. We’ve been saying for a while now that we should collaborate. The intention was that it would be a picture book, but once I was finished with Piecing Me Together, I thought maybe he’d be interested in doing the cover. I wanted the cover to be a collage because of Jade’s passion and talent. I also wanted to make sure she had dark skin and natural hair. I trusted him to do right by the story.

How did you come up with the title?

Titles are the hardest part for me—especially for novels. With my picture books, titles come first, but when writing a novel, I wait till the end and think about what the essence of the story is and try to come up with something that speaks to that. There’s a scene in the book where Jade is sitting at a gathering for Woman to Woman and she is wondering if a black girl can ever feel whole. She mentions feeling just fine when she is home with her family, but when she goes out into the world, she is sometimes broken into a million pieces. After I wrote that scene, the heart of Jade’s story came to me. She is piecing her life together, trying to keep from coming undone.

What are you working on next?

My next book will be out from Farrar in February 2018. It’s a middle grade historical fiction novel about the early years of Betty Shabazz. I am coauthoring the book with Ilyasah Shabazz and am honored to tell the story of Betty’s experience growing up in Detroit during the 1940s.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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