'Piecing Me Together' Novelist Says She Writes To Help Kids Feel Seen

Feb 17, 2018

Renée Watson's young adult novel Piecing Me Together tells the story of Jade, a Portland, Ore., high school student with "coal skin and hula-hoop hips." Jade has won a scholarship to St. Francis, a private school that's mostly white. She makes friends and does well, but she also feels the school sees her as some kind of project — and she doesn't like it.

A mentor named Maxine comes into her life with a program called Woman to Woman. Maxine is black too, and once lived in her neighborhood, but Jade wonders if Maxine just sees her as someone who needs to be saved.

"She's wondering is success only achievable, can it only happen, [if] she leaves her neighborhood, her family, all the things that she calls home," Watson says. "Because she's getting these messages from the adults in her life that in order to succeed, she has to get out of her economically poor neighborhood."

Piecing Me Together recently received the Coretta Scott King Award from the American Library Association, and it's also a John Newbery Medal honor book.


Interview Highlights

On how her own experiences informed the book

So I've been both student and mentor. I know what it's like to feel like people have come into my neighborhood to save me, fix me, take me out of what I call home, and of a place that I find beauty in, you know? Jade loves her community, and she sees beauty in the everyday things and in the everyday people, who are hard-working and talented and brilliant but just don't have the same opportunities as she's been given.

And I've also been the mentor in programs who've come in with really good intentions, and really wanting to help and support young people, and making mistakes along the way, and trying to figure out what is the best way to go about that. So I'm drawing from my own experience, my personal experience, and also what I've kind of just seen and witnessed.

On the complexity of mentorship programs

I am an advocate for mentoring programs. I think the problem is that sometimes adults just don't listen and don't ask enough questions. And so there's a difference between coming into a neighborhood with your own agenda and thinking that you know what's best for that place and the young people there, and coming and saying, "Hey, I have some ideas. What do you think? How can I support you? What are your goals and how can we work together to achieve that?"

So, over time in the book, Maxine, the mentor, realizes that she needs to kind of slow down, ask some questions, and let Jade speak for herself. It's a lot of give and take — what can a community give to the outsiders coming in and what can the outsiders give to that community?

On Jade's relationship with her mentor, Maxine

I really wanted to explore class. ... Maxine is black and the school, they make the assumption that, "Well, she's a black woman, and so that means you're gonna get along just fine." And they don't at first because it's such a vast difference in the way that they grew up and the resources that Maxine has, that it just takes a moment for them to figure out where do they connect and how can they really see each other beyond superficial, materialistic things.

On what moved her to write about race, gender and class

I write realistic fiction because I want young people and the adults in their lives to have a way to talk about what's happening, but have some space so you can talk about the characters in the book, and not necessarily your own story yet, if you're not ready to have that conversation.

And I know from personal experience that, you know, when you're a child, it's not that you don't know stuff is happening. A lot of times, adults are just not talking with you about it. And so, you can feel very strange, feeling this tension in your city or your community, but no one is saying anything. And so I hope that my books provide space for young people to explore, and say, "Yeah, I feel seen." That's what I want young people to do — to talk to each other and to the adults in their lives.

Lawrence Wu and Lauren Hodges produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Piecing Me Together," a young adult novel by Renee Watson, tells the story of Jade, a Portland, Ore., high school student with - her words - cold skin and hula-hoop hips. Jade has won a scholarship to St. Francis, a private school that's mostly white. She makes friends and does well but also doesn't like feeling, as she's sure the school sees her, as some kind of special project. A mentor named Maxine comes into her life with a program called Woman To Woman. Maxine is black, too and once lived in her neighborhood. But Jade wonders if Maxine just sees her as someone who needs to be saved.

"Piecing Me Together" received the Coretta Scott King Award from the American Library Association this week and was also honored with the John Newbery Medal. Renee Watson, the author, joins us from New York now. Thanks so much for being with us.

RENEE WATSON: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Jade finds it telling - doesn't she? - that's a phrase she learns in Spanish for to succeed - tener exito - has exit in the middle of it.

WATSON: Right. Yeah. She's wondering, is success only achievable? Can it only happen if she leaves her neighborhood, her family, all the things that she calls home? Because she's getting these messages from the adults in her life that in order to succeed, she has to get out of her economically poor neighborhood in order to do so.

SIMON: She's in class one day when students are asked to think of someone who's often taken for granted in their community. And a classmate has an answer that really startles her.

WATSON: Right. Her classmate says that her housekeeper is who she takes for granted. And Jade is like, oh. My mom works as a housekeeper, you know? So there's just all these issues with class and race and gender. And the intersections of those things that Jade is kind of having to figure out and deal with in the book.

SIMON: Where in your own life does this story come from?

WATSON: So I've been both student and mentor. I know what it's like to feel like people have come into my neighborhood to save me, fix me, take me out of what I call home and out of a place that I find beauty in. You know, Jade loves her community. And she sees beauty in the everyday things and in the everyday people. So I'm drawing from my own experience - my personal experience - and also what I've kind of just seen and witnessed.

SIMON: How do you address what I'll refer to as that mentorship program that's set up that seems to have all the right elements, except there has to be a kind of implicit almost disdain in it that somebody needs mentoring?

WATSON: Right. Well, you know, I've been thinking about this a lot. And I do. I am an advocate for mentoring programs. I think the problem is that, sometimes, adults just don't listen and don't ask enough questions. And so there's a difference between coming into a neighborhood with your own agenda and thinking that you know what's best for that place and the young people there and coming and saying, hey, I have some ideas. What do you think? How can I support you? What are your goals? And how can we work together to achieve that?

So over time in the book, Maxine, the mentor, realizes that she needs to kind of slow down, ask some questions and let Jade speak for herself. It's a lot of give and take. What can a community give to the outsiders coming in? And what can the outsiders give to that community? I think there's a sharing that, sometimes, we don't acknowledge.

SIMON: Jade has a complicated relationship with Maxine. Help us kind of understand that.

WATSON: I really wanted to explore class. And with Jade and her best friend Sam, it's about race - her best friend who's a white girl. Maxine is black. And the school assumes - they make the assumption that, well, she's a black woman, and so that means you're going to get along just fine. And they don't at first because it's such a vast difference in the way that they grew up and the resources that Maxine has that it just takes a moment for them to figure out, where do they connect?

SIMON: These issues you're talking about between race, class - they can be very volatile in American life.

WATSON: You know, they can be. And I think it's important. This is why I write. I write realistic fiction because I want young people and the adults in their lives to have a way to talk about what's happening but have some space. So you can talk about the characters in the book. And I know from personal experience that, you know, when you're a child, it's not that you don't know stuff is happening. A lot of times, adults are just not talking with you about it. And so you can feel very strange feeling this tension in your city or your community. But no one is saying anything. And so I hope that my books provide space for young people to explore and say, yeah. I feel seen. That's what I want young people to do - to talk to each other and to the adults in their lives.

SIMON: Renee Watson - her young adult novel "Piecing Me Together" has won a Newbery Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award. Thank you so much for being with us.

WATSON: Thank you.

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