Q & A Interview with the Award-Winning Author
by Traci Swain
“Teaching young people made me a better listener and gave me insight to what they care about and how they interact with one another.” —Renée Watson
If you are at all familiar with Renée Watson’s writing—whether it’s Piecing Me Together, which won both the Coretta Scott King Award and a Newbery Honor; Ways to Make Sunshine; or even from her career as a teaching artist—you know that Renée believes in the power of using art to move people’s hearts.
Read Renée’s interview below with your students to discover more about her path as an artist and writer, how being a teacher shaped her work (and vice versa), and her advice for up-and-coming writers!
Can you tell us about your reading journey as a young child?
My earliest memories of reading are of reading and memorizing scriptures as a child at the Baptist church my family went to. Language was always something to engage with, speak out loud, and play with. I think reading and reciting scriptures as a child gave me a love for poetry, and soon, in my later years of elementary school, I was devouring poetry books, reciting my favorite poems, and starting to write my own.
Some of the books I loved as a child include Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and the poetry collections of Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, and Langston Hughes.
How did growing up in Portland, Oregon, affect the way you approached writing Ways to Make Sunshine?
Portland is a place I love and know well. I wanted to celebrate some of my favorite places in Oregon and honor the neighborhood I grew up in. No one scene is an exact memory from my childhood, but every word of the series is inspired by the vibrant, bustling, nurturing community I grew up in.
In what ways are you and Ryan alike? Different?
Like Ryan, I tend to look on the bright side of things. I’m definitely the kind of person who needs to express my feelings—I cry, I vent, I get frustrated, but after that, I am pretty good at thinking up a solution to the challenge or coming up with a Plan B. I love that about Ryan. She doesn’t push her feelings down. Instead, she owns them, tries to understand them, and looks for things to be grateful for.
Unlike Ryan, I am not that adventurous when it comes to cooking. I enjoy cooking, but I don’t experiment as much as she does. I’m more simple, like Ray.
You are also a teacher. Do you think your teaching affects your writing, and vice versa?
Teaching young people made me a better listener and gave me insight to what they care about and how they interact with one another. So many of my stories are inspired by the young people I’ve worked with over the years.
I also think writing creatively makes me a better teacher of creative writing. I know how to work through rough drafts, how daunting revision is, and how to push through writer’s block. I teach from my experience and try to show students the very practical side to writing, not just my finished, polished work. And without fail, when I am stuck on a new draft or feeling like I am not a good writer at all, I return to that advice I give students, I return to the revision exercises and lessons I’ve taught, and I apply my own advice to my work. I love the way writing and teaching feed each other—it’s a powerful synergy.
“The arts can provide a therapeutic and cathartic experience for young people to reflect and respond to what is happening in their world.” —Renée Watson
Can you tell us how you use the arts to help youth cope with various social issues?
The arts can provide a therapeutic and cathartic experience for young people to reflect and respond to what is happening in their world. I’ve used spoken-word poetry, theater, and visual art in workshop settings with young people to create art to speak out against injustice, raise awareness, and celebrate marginalized communities.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
My advice to up-and-coming writers is to read as much as you can. Always read first to take the story in and then once you finish the book, if you loved the story, read it again and study what the writer did to get you to love it. How did they end chapters? How did they pace the plot and conflict of the story? Writers learn to write by reading and writing. I believe the more you take in and share stories, the stronger storyteller you become.
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RENÉE WATSON is a New York Times–bestselling author. Her novel Piecing Me Together received a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Award. Her other books include the Ryan Hart series, Ways to Make Sunshine and Ways to Grow Love; Some Places More Than Others; Love Is a Revolution; 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 grew up in Portland, Oregon, where many of her books are set and now splits her time between Portland and New York City.
Photo credit: Shawnte Sims
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