Teacher/artist Renée Watson makes her YA debut with This Side of Home, a novel about African-American teenage sisters navigating friendships, relationships, school politics and future plans. The sisters' identities are intertwined with issues of class, race and gender, allowing Watson to explore all of these issues through their eyes.
BookPage spoke with Watson about her new book, the growing pains of gentrification and school reform, and "dealing with reality—sorting through the good and bad—trying to make sense of it all."
Your previous work includes children’s poetry (A Place Where Hurricanes Happen), a picture book (Harlem’s Little Blackbird), a middle grade novel (What Momma Left Me) and articles for educators about multiculturalism and arts education. What inspired you to branch out into YA fiction?
I’ve worked in middle and high schools for several years. The pains and joys of adolescents are moments I witness on a daily basis, so I think their stories are always with me as I write. The lives of my high school students are interesting—they are always changing. Their conflicts are more dramatic, and there’s just so much to sort through. All of this makes for good plots and complex characters so going with YA for this story made the most sense.
But besides those more practical reasons, my motivation to write young adult novels comes from a desire to get teenagers talking. I hope my books are a catalyst for youth and adults to have conversations with one another, for teachers to have a starting point to discuss difficult topics with students. Though my writing is fiction, it is definitely not for escaping reality. It is all about dealing with reality—sorting through the good and bad—trying to make sense of it all.
Maya and Nikki live in a Portland neighborhood where gentrification is rapidly changing the downtown landscape. They plan to attend a historically black women’s college, a decision that their community activist parents support. How similar are the twins’ circumstances to those of your own teenage years?
I see both Maya and Nikki in myself. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and like Maya, I was on student council and very involved in my high school. I also had dreams of going to college (in New York) and wanted so badly to make my mother and community proud. Unlike Maya, I wasn’t totally against the changes that came to Portland. I am a lot like Nikki in that way.
I started noticing changes in my neighborhood—the same neighborhood in the book—my junior year in high school. For me, the change was not that rapid. It took about 20 years to see the fullness of gentrification in North East Portland. Gentrification was not a word I knew at 15, but I knew the feeling of not belonging. There was something about the changes that made it seem like they weren’t for the people who already lived there but for the people who were coming. Yet, even with that feeling, I still wanted to go out and enjoy these new places. So for me, I have both of their perspectives—I want the change, appreciate it even, but I don’t appreciate the push out that often comes with it.
Maya wants to pursue a career in journalism, in part because she’s “always liked asking questions, finding deeper reasons and meanings for things.” Why did you choose this particular career interest for your main character?
It seemed like a natural desire for Maya to have. At first, I thought she was a lover of music and that maybe she should pursue a music career, but the more I wrote her character, I realized that what she’s passionate about is history and connecting history to the present. She is full of questions and wonder. Journalism seemed like a good fit.
Richmond High, where Maya and Nikki are seniors, has a new principal this year. His intentions to promote academic success are good, but he’s out of touch with many of the real needs and concerns of the student body. School reform agendas similar to Principal Green’s are in the news a lot these days. What do you think are some of the pluses and minuses that school reform might offer a community like Richmond?
What I love about Principal Green is that he wants the students to be accountable to each other, he promotes unity, and is pushing students to excel outside of the stereotypes they are often rewarded for exceling in. My frustration with him is that he lacks a sincere appreciation and understanding of the community he is working in. He comes in with a savior mentality and imposes his ideas on the student body without ever asking a parent, teacher or student, “What’s working? What’s not? How can we work together?” To me, the most effective school reform agendas include input from the actual people of the community and takes into account their particular needs and traditions. Once the principal understands the community then s/he is ready to think about how different theories and educational practices might work in this particular setting. The action always has to match and be designed for a specific community. Generally programs without those considerations just won't work.
As student council president, Maya takes a stand against replacing her school’s traditional Black History Month celebration with a diversity assembly intended to be “for everyone, not just the black students.” Why was it important for Maya’s character—or for you as an author creating her voice—for her to advocate for this point of view?
I think one of Principal Green’s mistakes is believing that black history is only relevant to African-American students. By changing the assembly, he once again makes a decision without fully understanding the importance of the tradition and not just that, but the necessity for all students—from all backgrounds—to learn about black history, which is an integral part of American history and therefore relevant for all students.
I know students like Maya who advocate for themselves and at a young age consider themselves activists. I wanted to have a main character be passionate about something other than some of the cliché things some adults think all teenagers care about. It was important for me to have Maya stand up for something she believed in—even if it didn’t get the results she wanted.
OK, this is a minor detail, especially in view of the serious issues raised in your book, but I was thrilled to find that Maya’s student council board includes not only the standard offices of President, Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer, but also the position of Historian. What does a student council historian do?
The historian is responsible for recording the events of the school year, to put on record—through photos and writings—the important things that happened so that future classes can look back and see what was going on at the school in any given year.
Can we expect a follow-up novel chronicling Maya’s next steps? Or are you working on other projects that BookPage readers might find interesting?
Right now, I’m busy traveling for the book tour. Instead of a writing project, I’m telling stories through photography. I’ll be capturing different cities and the places I call home and sharing them on Instagram. I’d love for BookPage readers to join in. All they have to do is take a photo of a place that makes their home special and post it using #ThisSideOfHome. My Instagram handle is @harlemportland, and I’d love to connect with readers and learn about the places they love.