Great Joy and Self-Love: Renée Watson on "Love Is a Revolution"

In the summer of 2020, a time of tragedy and activism throughout the country, Black teens were still falling in love and discovering their relationships to the world...and Renée Watson was working on a book about radical self-love and a Black girl saving herself. Here she writes about finding joy amid pain and how love can be a personal revolution.

Something strange happened my freshman year of high school. Every day, 15 minutes before lunch, I would start to feel sick. My stomach felt funny, my palms were sweating, I felt hot all over. The first day it happened, I asked Ms. Brown if I could go get a drink of water from the water fountain down the hall. She said yes. The water didn’t help much. The bell rang and me and my friend Patricia walked out into the hallway for lunch. A guy named CJ was there waiting for us and the three of us walked to the cafeteria. This happened on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…15 minutes before lunch I’d start feeling sick, I’d get water, it wouldn’t help, the bell would ring, and I’d walk to lunch with Patricia and CJ.

Renee Watson
Photo by Shawnte Sims

Then Friday came.

Fifteen minutes before lunch and I got that feeling. I asked Ms. Brown if I could get water. Ms. Brown said, “Sure, but I don’t think you’re sick. I think maybe what you’re feeling is what we call butterflies.”

“Butterflies?” I asked.

“I think you’re excited to see that handsome guy who’s been waiting to walk you to lunch every day.” Ms. Brown instantly became a genius to me. How did she know I had a crush on CJ when I didn’t even know? That, indeed, was what it was. My first major high school crush.

When I look back on that time in my life, I think about how naive I was, how shy I was, and also how sad, worried, and angry I was. The same year that I was crushing on CJ, I was also concerned about my grandfather being sick and losing his memory. He didn’t always remember me and was slowly fading away. This was also the year that four Los Angeles police officers (three who were white) were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King, a Black man. The attack was caught on camera by a bystander, and people who watched it were outraged that there were no consequences for the officers. Images from the L.A. riots were on every channel and on the front pages of national and local newspapers.

There was a lot happening. And yet—I was falling in love for the first time.

I thought about all of this while writing Love Is a Revolution. I was adding the final edits to Nala’s story this past summer during the Black Lives Matter protests in response to police brutality. All the while, quarantining and doing my best to stay healthy during a global pandemic. I thought, maybe I should change the plot, maybe I should bring in what’s happening right now. After all, I write realistic fiction—I have to keep it real. But the truth is, while there are protests and sickness and great loss happening right now, there is also great joy. Right now.

Love is a Revolution coverAnd so, I stayed with the original premise: Nala Robertson fakes being an activist to get the attention of a guy. She pretends to be a vegetarian; she lies about volunteering at a community elderly home. Once her lies are exposed, she’s faced with admitting the truth and comes to an understanding that before she can love anyone else, she has to love herself.

I decided to stick with the original idea because I want young readers to have books that celebrate the everydayness of life. Our young people deserve to have stories about summer crushes, about friendship, about healthy families and vibrant communities. Black teens are falling in love, developing new friendships, and dreaming about their futures. This is also reality.

I am intentional about writing stories where Blackness is not a burden. I want young readers to have books where Black teens go on summer excursions, have sweet first kisses, and stay up too late binge-watching their new favorite show. I believe this is important not only for Black readers but for non-Black readers as well. When non-Black readers only have books about Black pain, struggle, and tragedy, it can perpetuate stereotypes and cause even the most well-meaning person to see Black people through a lens of pity. This isn’t to say stories that explore painful situations should not be told—especially stories about the Black experience in the United States of America. This is to say we need a range of stories. We need stories that not only process our sorrows but amplify our joys.

While writing Love Is a Revolution, I pushed myself to lean into the joy. I wanted to write about a girl who is not only falling in love with a hot guy, but who is falling in love with herself. Nala’s self-love is radical love.

As we urge our young people to raise their voices against injustice, to write their truths, to get involved in their communities, I hope we encourage them to find joy, to honor the people and places they love. I hope we encourage them to start their own self-love revolutions.

Renée Watson is a New York Times best-selling author. Her novel Piecing Me Together received a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Award. Her books include Love Is a Revolution; Ways To Make Sunshine; Some Places More Than Others; This Side of Home; What Momma Left Me; Betty Before X, cowritten with Ilyasah Shabazz; and Watch Us Rise, cowritten with Ellen Hagan, as well as two acclaimed picture books: A Place Where Hurricanes Happen and Harlem’s Little Blackbird, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Renée splits her time between Portland and New York City.

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