Reneé Watson and Ellen Hagan talk Watch Us Rise, acceptance and Beyoncé


This post is sponsored by Bloomsbury.

With so many, amazing YA books on the market, it can be hard to know which one to pick up off the shelf first. This month we’ve been loving Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan’s ‘Watch Us Rise‘.

Watch Us Rise‘ is the perfect book for young feminists, and those who are interested in making a change to get you questioning society and rise up against everyday struggles. We sat down with friends and authors, Renée and Ellen to find out about the writing process and what their resolves are!

Watch Us Rise follows Jasmine and Chelsea – you each write in the voice of one of the characters, can you tell us a bit about them?

Renée Watson: Readers meet Jasmine at a time in her life when she’s coping with her father’s illness. He has cancer and doesn’t have long to live. He’s an activist and he challenges Jasmine to use her art to do something that matters, so she does just that. Over the course of the story, we see Jasmine find her artistic voice and use it to speak out against sexism, racism, and body shaming. She loves theater and decides that she will not play the stereotypical roles made for girls like her. She decides to write her own monologues and poems and finds the courage to perform them.

Ellen Hagan: Chelsea is full of energy and fire. She is extremely passionate about what she believes in and wants to share that with the people around her, and bring them along. She can be assertive and even over the top sometimes, but she cares deeply about creating and nurturing a just world and that can cause her to lose patience with the people around her who she wants to rise up even more. She can also be vulnerable, and I think we see that the most with Jasmine. Chelsea wants their voices to be heard and she’s always seeking out the best ways to make that happen.

How did it work co-writing the book together? Was it difficult to align your thoughts and some of the plot lines or did it flow naturally?

RW: Ellen and I have known each other for many years. We’ve co-taught poetry together and worked with young girls in New York City for more than a decade, so the process for writing together felt very natural and seamless. We’d start our time with conversation about what was happening in our world and those discussions often inspired scenes in the book. We started out with an outline—a row of post-it notes with plot points spread out on her dining room table. But we also gave ourselves permission to let the story develop and take its own shape. At the end of each writing session, we shared our chapters and then talked about ideas for the next chapters. It was a true joy working with Ellen. We had a lot of fun creating this work together.

There are segments in the book that are made up of written and spoken word passages – this really made the novel stand out for me. When you set out writing the book, did you know you were going to intertwine those different elements?

EH: Yes, we both knew we wanted there to be some poetic elements to the story. It was important to both of us when we were growing up, and as friends, we connected over a shared love of poetry. As teachers, we have both spent a great deal of time teaching some of our favorite poets and getting young people to talk about who they are and where they come from. As Watch Us Rise started to take shape, we were excited to explore poetic themes through Chelsea and Jasmine’s voices and loved that the poems push the story further, and give us insight into the thoughts and emotions of these characters.

The book deals with a whole host of issues including the death of a parent, fatphobia, blatant racism and more. How did you ensure that those topics were covered in a sensitive way yet encourage the reader to raise their voice if they encountered it?

RW: We’ve both witnessed these issues happen in our classrooms with young people we care about and also in our personal lives as teens. One way we tried to make sure we were sensitive and thoughtful is that we constantly pulled from the emotion we felt when experiencing similar situations. We also made sure the story was first and foremost about friendship. Because of the tight bond between the characters, the hard things faced are faced together.

In the book, setbacks occur for Jasmine and Chelsea, but they push forward and make things happen themselves. What have been the biggest setbacks you’ve faced in your life so far?

RW: I’ve had similar setbacks and can relate to a lot of what Jasmine goes through in the book. Especially when I was her age. I know what it’s like to have a parent who is ill. I have encountered racism, sexism, and body shaming. I wasn’t as confident as Jasmine though. The older I get, the more confident I am, the more I have accepted myself.

EH: I have absolutely felt insecure about the way I look and wanting to simultaneously embrace and push away parts of the beauty industry. There have been times in my life when I have felt insecure and vulnerable about my identity and where I’m from. As I have gotten older, I am more confident, but I am always navigating what it means to feel whole and comfortable in the world – and how to see all the ways that we can be nuanced and complicated and real. It is a continuum and I am excited to be in conversation about how we speak back to issues and make our voices heard.

A large part of the book is about women coming together to challenge, inspire and grow with each other. When you were younger, who were the women in your life to help you achieve those goals?

RW: My mother is the first woman who encouraged me to go after my goals. She has always been my number one supporter. I am so grateful to have had a community of women who loved and supported me—my three sisters, my high school teachers Pam Hooten and Linda Christensen. These women absolutely shaped me into the person I am.

EH: Yes! My mother was and is a constant influence in my life. She is loving and hysterical and critical and smart. I have always looked to her as a guide. And the most influential teachers were Karen Harryman and Kelly Norman Ellis, who I worked with in high school and beyond. And there are so many women I am surrounded by now who are close friends and fellow artists who really push and encourage me in so many ways. I feel lucky to be surrounded by powerful women who are all rising up around me.

What advice would you give young activists who want to make a difference in the world?

EH: I would say figure out a way to connect to the world around you. What organizations and people are interested and invested in the same issues and have the same concerns as you. Find a way to gather together – start a club, an after-school, a meeting place and think about the ways you want to make change. Start a workshop, a march, a letter writing campaign, a meet-up or fundraising event to share your thoughts and ideas. Get started! Also – I love the resource pages in the back of Watch Us Rise. There are so many organizations and communities to connect with. Find your people and think about the kind of world you want to live in. Now figure out the ways to make it happen!

Coming together around music happens quite a lot in the book, and we noticed you’ve both been to see Beyonce! If Jasmine and Chelsea were music artists, who would they be and why?

RW: I think Jasmine would be Lauryn Hill. The album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is full of songs about self-acceptance, honoring friendship, loving where you come from. If Jasmine was a songwriter and performer, she’d create similar songs—music that has a message but also a beat, a groove you want to listen to.

EH: I think Chelsea would be P!nk. I love how outrageous she is. She’s a true powerhouse. Her performances are beautiful and jarring and sometimes over the top. She is opinionated, powerful and outspoken. I love that she absolutely owns who she is, and doesn’t apologize for herself in any way.

What one book could you read over and over again and not get bored?

RW: House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

EH: Sula by Toni Morrison

Finish the sentence, I resolve to…. After reading Watch Us Rise

RW: I resolve to be as bold and brave as my characters are.

EH: I resolve to love harder and longer. Show up & show out!

Lastly, what advice would you give to people looking to write their own YA novels?

RW: My advice to aspiring YA writers is to read as many young adult novels as you can. There is such a range and there’s a lot you can learn from reading books similar to the ones you want to write. I always say if you read a book and love it, read it again and see what the author did to make you love it. I also think participating in the YA community—online and locally—is important and crucial for having support and finding inspiration.

‘Watch Us Rise’ is available to buy now.

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