By DYLAN TRAN, age 12
Renée Watson is a writer and educator based in Harlem, NY. Her award-winning books, which include This Side of Home and Harlem’s Little Black Bird: The Story of Florence Mills, shine a light on the stories of women of color. Her most recent project is I, Too, Art Collective, which aims to preserve Langston Hughes’s home in Harlem and transform it into an art center.
Dylan Tran: What inspired you to become a writer?
Renée Watson: As a child I learned that words have power. I was very young when I started writing poems, and sometimes I would give them to family and friends as gifts. They were so moved, and I realized that I had a gift, and I wanted to move people with my words.
What kinds of stories do you try to tell through your writing?
I write young adult and middle-grade novels, as well as picture books. Most of my stories center around African-American girls. I feel responsible for making sure that there is a balance of bitter and sweet, that stereotypes are challenged and that the communities I write about reflect the vibrant, loving and complicated worlds of the real black girls I know.
What do you use as inspiration for your stories?
I get inspiration from current events, unsung heroes, eavesdropping on conversations when I’m on the subway in New York, people-watching at a park. Most times, I get a piece of dialogue first—the character says something really shocking or sad—and I go from there.
How is your work as a writer connected to the creation of I, Too, Arts Collective?
Shortly after moving to New York, I began writing This Side of Home, a young adult novel with gentrification as one of its themes. The character, Maya, searches for the black history that she feels has been erased, and is determined to hold on to the past and embrace the new. I kept thinking, this is more than a story for me.
I grew up reading and writing poetry, and I used to teach poetry to young people. I believe strongly that all young people should have access to quality arts education, and that’s one of the reasons why the I launched I, Too, Arts Collective.
How does social justice play a role in your work?
I believe stories have power—who tells them, how they’re told, who the villains are, who the heroes are. All of this plays a part in how stereotypes are formed and reinforced. I hope my work dismantles stereotypes and provides both windows and mirrors for young readers.
Do you have any advice for kids that want to become writers and/or educators?
My advice is to read. Read to enjoy the story, and then read it again to study what the writer did in terms of craft that pulled you in. Reading also builds critical thinking skills and helps you think outside of yourself.
Besides that, my advice is to choose your friends wisely. You’re going to need people around you who also have big dreams, and you’ll need to lean on each other.