story and photos by Claire Miller
Serenity Evans and her brother, Danny, have experienced their share of domestic violence, grief and loss at the opening of Renée Watson’s novel, “What Momma Left Me.”
But they also find moments of joy and healing. And for Watson, striking a balance between the difficult and the uplifting is key to writing stories about issues that children and young adults face today.
“Sometimes, young people may feel alone and even having someone in a book that’s going through the same thing can bring healing, comfort and encouragement,” she said.
Watson was the featured author at the College of Education & Human Development’s third annual Lecture on Diversity and Justice in Children’s Literature on Jan. 23.
Her realistic fiction offers nuanced, thoughtful depictions of young black girls – from Jade, a high schooler with plans to travel abroad and become a visual artist in “Piecing Me Together,” to identical twin sisters Maya and Nikki, whose differences become clearer as they navigate changes to their gentrifying Portland neighborhood in “This Side of Home.”
Watson reflected on how her books provide readers “mirrors and windows” into young black girls’ life experiences – a concept first created by Rudine Sims-Bishop, an African-American scholar of children’s literature, in the 1980s.
She hopes children who look like her protagonists see themselves reflected in the pages of her novels. And in her discussions with teachers and parents, she hopes readers who can’t relate to the stories she writes see her books as windows into lives different from their own.
“It’s one thing to get the, ‘Amen,’ when you’re preaching to the choir. But it’s a whole other thing to say, ‘There are other stories that you should be taking in, and you maybe have to let them speak for themselves,’” Watson explained. “That’s the work we’re trying to do in our classrooms.”
The Lecture on Diversity and Justice in Children’s Literature series engages teacher educators, teachers, media specialists, artists and others in critical conversations about issues of representation, the politics of children’s publishing, literacy and the role of art and artists.
For more information about Watson’s work, visit https://www.reneewatson.net.