Renée Watson is an actress, poet, and author of the children’s picture book, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen (Random House, 2010), which was featured on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Her middle grade novel, What Momma Left Me (Bloomsbury, 2010), earned her recognition as the New Voice for 2010 in middle grade fiction by The Independent Children’s Booksellers Association.
When she’s not writing and performing, Renée is teaching. She’s worked in public schools and community organizations as an artist-in-residence for several years, teaching poetry, fiction, and theater. She also leads professional development workshops for teachers and artists.
Renée graduated from The New School, where she studied Creative Writing and earned a certificate in Drama Therapy. One of her passions is using the arts to help youth cope with trauma. She has conducted poetry and theatre workshops with young girls coping with sexual and physical abuse, children who have witnessed violence, children coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and children who relocated to New York City after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Renée currently resides in New York City.
BBS: Hi Renée. Welcome to The Brown Bookshelf.
RW: Thanks for having me.
BBS: This past year, you entered the world of children’s literature with not one, but two books: A PLACE WHERE HURRICANES HAPPEN and WHAT MOMMA LEFT ME. When did you first know that you wanted to write for children? Was there a precipitating event?
RW: I have known I wanted to be a writer since I was seven-years-old. Seriously. In the second grade I wrote a 21-page story and handed it in to my teacher. She told my mother I was going to be a writer. Since then, I always kept a journal and wrote poetry, plays, stories. Once I became an adult and started to pursue writing as a professional career, I realized my main characters were always young people. My stories naturally center around children and teenagers. I think it’s because I have worked with youth for about twelve years. The pains and joys of adolescents are moments I witness on a daily basis, so their stories are always with me as I write. Also, for me, the lives of children and teens are interesting—they are always changing. There’s just so much to sort through. All of this makes for good plots and complex characters.
BBS: I imagine having two books hit the market at the same time—from different publishers and in different genres—had to make for some exciting moments and some interesting challenges. Can you share what the experience has been like?
RW: I am very blessed to have had two books come out just weeks apart from each other. It was actually pure coincidence. HURRICANES was slated to be released to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Katrina. In the meantime, I wrote and sold WHAT MOMMA LEFT ME, and the book was published within a year and a half of signing the contract, so it just happened that both books came out Summer 2010.
Overall, the experience was great. It was easier in some ways to do school visits because several schools have both age groups and so, I’d spend the morning with the little ones and the afternoon with the older students. Logistically, there were a few glitches with trying to coordinate events and appearances with two different publishers. But even the small frustrations were blessings to me—I looked at them as a good problem to have.
BBS: Normally, authors and illustrators operate quite separately. You and Shadra Strickland, however, have made multiple appearances together in promoting HURRICANES. How did you two initially connect with one another? What are the tangible advantages of authors and illustrators working together to promote their books?
RW: It just made sense to me that Shadra and I should join forces to promote the book. My words inspired her illustrations, her artistry brought my words to life. Doing events together only enhances the experience for audience members. Our first time meeting was in New Orleans for the taping of NBC’s Nightly News Special, New Orleans Five Years Later. I was able to introduce Shadra to one of the families that inspired the book, and it meant a lot to me for both of us to be together to share the book with the young people it was created for. We also decided to do school visits together that not only promoted our book, but inspired youth to write and create art. We visited Shadra’s former high school in Atlanta and did a two-day poetry and art workshop.
Some of the tangible advantages of promoting together is bringing your contact lists as one. Our NY event was packed out because Shadra had her supporters and friends there, and I had mine. It also continues to build the community of writers and illustrators and connects likeminded people with each other. I know that this is rare—for an illustrator and author to work together as often as we did, and I don’t expect this for all my books but I am thankful that this was the experience I had for my first book.
BBS: Can you share with our readers the events and interactions you had in New Orleans that inspired you to write HURRICANES? What about WHEN MOMMA LEFT ME? What inspired it?
RW: In 2006, a year after hurricane Katrina, I was asked to come to New Orleans and lead poetry workshops with young people who were coping with the aftermath. The summer camp existed before Katrina, but after the storm the director knew she needed to have students process their feelings, so the entire camp—the creative writing, art, dance, and music classes—were dedicated to processing the devastation that happened. Once I returned to New York, I couldn’t get the children’s stories out of my head and I wanted to do something to honor them.
WHAT MOMMA LEFT ME is different, in that it is not based on an actual event. I have always been intrigued by the notion of generational curses and blessings—do children really become their parents? And I’ve also worked with young women who either experienced or have been affected by domestic violence, and so, the story was birthed out of a combination of my own questioning and witnessing.
RW: In terms of theme—both were equally challenging because they deal with such heavy topics. I wanted to make sure I stayed true to the horror of Katrina and the devastation of a child losing her mother (in WHAT MOMMA LEFT ME) but not have the books be too dark, too hopeless. In my writing I hope to have a balance between the good and bad, the hard and soft.
As for format—picture books are more difficult for me because it is telling a huge story in the least amount of words. It’s all about being concise and to the point, which was challenging for me because up until that point I was use to writing longer stories for an older audience.
BBS: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the children’s book publication process: 1) pre-publication? 2) post-publication?
RW: I have learned patience, for sure. Pre-publication is a long waiting game, especially for authors of picture books. We write the manuscript, sign the contract, and wait. It takes a while for the art director to find an illustrator and then the illustrator works on the sketches, and depending on those first round of sketches, it could be a few more months before you see a final illustration. I was surprised at how long it takes for all the pieces to come together.
Post-publication I have been surprised at the limited resources publishers have to promote books. I certainly knew that being a new author, I would have to do a lot of self-promoting, but it really has surprised me just how much I have had to do myself to make sure the books get into the hands of young people.
BBS: Who is your greatest literary influence?
RW: It is so hard to narrow that down. I would say I have been influenced the most by poets Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks. My high school English teacher introduced me to these women and I couldn’t get enough of their words. I grew up in Portland, Oregon and attended a predominately while middle school. The books we read were wonderful, but the characters never looked like anyone from my family, or my church. When my teacher introduced me to their poetry, she was affirming that my story was worth telling and hearing. Clifton and Brooks wrote about everyday people, they used their words to stand up against injustice, they made the simple profound. There are many writers who have influenced me and who I enjoy reading, but Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks are at the top of the list.
BBS: Who…what…where is your creative muse?
RW: As I mentioned before, I draw quite a bit from the lives of the young people I have worked with over the years. The city of Portland is definitely a place that is infused in my writing. WHAT MOMMA LEFT ME takes place in Portland and so does the novel I am working on now.
I have a writing space in my apartment, but I prefer to write at coffee shops. When I’m stuck, I take a walk and spend time outside to clear my mind. I get inspired on these walks, often getting new ideas for stories and finding solutions to the problems that need to be fixed in the draft I am working on.
BBS: You have used all of your creative talents as an actress, writer, and poet to affect positive change in the life of youth. Tell our readers about some of the work you’ve done with children and teenagers. What personal blessings do you receive as a result of this work?
RW: Besides writing, I also teach poetry and theater to middle and high school students as an artist-in-residence. I also do one-woman performances that usually have a talk-back session afterwards or workshop that delves deeper into the issues of the play.
I have always known that I wanted to work with youth through the arts and I believe the arts can help young people cope with hardship. When I first started being a guest artist in the schools, I was strictly teaching the fundamentals of poetry and theater—which I still do. But I learned early on in my teaching career that students can’t leave their lives at the door when they come to school. They bring with them whatever is going on at home and in their communities. Poetry and theater provide an outlet for students to express themselves and process what they’re going through. So, besides the normal artist-in-residence type of workshops, I also do specialized workshops for young people who have experienced trauma of all sorts—natural disasters, violence, grief, abuse.
I also teach young people how the arts can be used to stand up against injustice. My most current project is using arts as a means for social change. I am working with an incredibly talented group of young people in the Bronx, who are apart of DreamYard’s ACTION Project—an arts and activism group for high schoolers. They are pint-sized activist, budding artists, and it is a privilege to work with them.
The personal blessings of this kind of work are endless. One important thing I take away daily is that for all the talk about what youth are not doing—especially young people of color—I know there are many who do care about their future, who are striving to affect their world in a positive way.
BBS: In your work with youth, have you ascertained any particular information re: their reading habits (i.e., their literary needs, likes, and dislikes)?
RW: These days, most of my interactions with young people are centered on the poetry or theater classes I teach, so the students I know are reading contemporary poets (they love Willie Perdomo) and scripts (No Child, by Nilaja Sun and Twilight by Anna Deavere Smith). I don’t know their reading habits outside of our class, but I believe that they enjoy stories that they can relate to, learn from, be challenged by—you know, the usual good writing that every reader craves.
BBS: What other kidlit projects are you currently working on?
RW: I am in the early stages of a young adult novel and I just finished my next picture book, HARLEM’S LITTLE BLACKBIRD: The Story of Florence Mills (Random House, 2012).
BBS: Finally…Daytime or nighttime?
RW: Daytime—early morning, to be exact.
BBS: The movie that always causes you to cry?
RW: Raisin in the Sun—all versions of it—the play, the movie, the script. The scene when the family finds out Walter wasted the money gets me every time.
BBS: Smells that make you most happy?
RW: Fresh laundry straight out of the dryer, the crisp pages of a brand new book, vanilla scented candles, freshly made waffle cones.
BBS: Thanks for visiting The Brown Bookshelf, Renée!
RW: Thank you for featuring me and supporting my work.
To learn more about Renée and the buzz on her books, visit www.reneewatson.net