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renÉE Watson

Episode 2: I Want Her Smiling

Author and activist Renée Watson tells us about her big publishing break and why she fights so hard for her book covers.

A New York Times bestselling author, an educator, and a community activist, Watson won a Coretta Scott King Award for her young adult novel Piecing Me Together. She has also written several other  YA and middle-grade books, and recently announced her debut adult novel will be published by Little, Brown in 2024.

Renée Watson  00:02

I will never forget that night walking home. One of my sisters and I was just like I think my life is about to change


Eden Dawn  00:18

Hey friends welcome to We Can't Print This.


Fiona McCann  00:20

This is a podcast telling the story you don't know behind the story you do.


Eden Dawn  00:25

My name is Eden Dawn and every week Fiona and I interview a writer of some kind or another about the stories behind their stories.


Fiona McCann  00:38

This week, we are delighted and feeling extremely fortunate to welcome New York Times best selling author, educator and community activist Renée Watson in New York Times ever heard of it? Maybe she won among by the way other major honors and awards, a prestigious Coretta Scott King Award and a Newbery Honor for her young adult novel Piecing Me Together which is a beautiful work. I encourage everyone to read it and give it to your kids is also the author of a number of YA and middle grade novels, including most recently the third in the Ryan Hart series. And can I tell you she has also sold over 1 million books a million and been on the Oregon Battle of the Books list, which I just had to share, right because I love OBAB. And I also had the privilege once to edit an extraordinary essay for Portland Monthly about what Ramona Quimby mentor her. Because you know what she was born and raised right here in Portland.


Eden Dawn  01:35

I know I love how many other Oregonians we've had on here.


Fiona McCann  01:39

I think it's also worth mentioning because this is hot news off the press as we speak, that Renée has very recently, just this instant announced that she has sold her very first work of adult fiction. Oh, yes, just in so we all know her as an amazing and incredible wife and kids we'll call her but also, she's going to have some things to say to you grownups too.


Eden Dawn  02:07

it's such a wild career in a relatively short period of time. And today talks to us about how she got the foot in the door, which is not a story I expected and it is not like any other writers I've ever met.


Fiona McCann  02:21

No, I never heard a story like that before I have to say but I do think it's worth thinking about. Because there are some doors that automatically open for certain people. And then there are other times when people have to just shove their way in any way any way they can. Yeah, can I


Eden Dawn  02:37

tell you that my first paid journalism job because I wrote for things free as many young writers to


Fiona McCann  02:45

these do not do this at home young writers. Do not do not


Eden Dawn  02:48

but we did was writing for one of the local papers here where I was paid to write three articles a week $12.50


Fiona McCann  03:01

wait in a word in total whitewash?


Eden Dawn  03:04

Well, that was my weekly pay was $12.50 to write three fashion articles a week, and I was paid them in weekly checks. Who wouldn't mail checks to me every and by the way. I'm young. Thank you. This was not in 1912 This was


Fiona McCann  03:22

in Victorian England. And I was a chimney


Eden Dawn  03:29

and I was a nanny with a bag. No, this was in like 2009 Maybe $12.50 a week.


Fiona McCann  03:36

I don't want to sound grim, but they're probably paid less now. And that was the peak of journalism.


Eden Dawn  03:41

But it led to me getting headhunted to the next job which went to the next job like it was my foot in the door. So it was the first time I was being paid for a thing. So I am glad I did it. But it is very entertaining to look back and I because I didn't want to go to the bank that much. Sometimes I would just like save them up and then walk in with like six checks to endorse and feel like I was a baller and then it would, the total would you know be like $62


Fiona McCann  04:08

Well $12 And how many cents 50 While 50 A week by six you do the math people because I was going to try it and you


Eden Dawn  04:18

do the math. We don't want out. What about you? How did you get what was your thing?


Fiona McCann  04:22

I mean, I when I was a journalism student, I was studying journalism in college, in part to be honest, because I thought no one's gonna let me do this work unless I have some kind of degree in it. I really have that absorbs that. And it turns out that maybe that's also not true. But I was like, no, no, I have to do me masters. I have to study journalism. And then somehow I'll be led into the hallowed halls of journalism, which was quite a small industry. as well. To be honest, it's very small country. So all interest


Eden Dawn  04:50

free circuit about the size of Oregon, right, population wise.


Fiona McCann  04:54

It's actually smaller in geographical land space and probably slightly bigger population wise, but yeah, we're talking more or less comparable. Anyway. What I really, really, really wanted to work for the Irish Times. That was the newspaper that I knew I had my heart set on but I really wanted to work there and I but as I was studying journalism, and I just didn't know how to do these things. I didn't know how to get in the doors. But I was working as you do through college as a lounge girl in a bar and happened to be working a shift when some Irish time crews came in. And because I recognized more because I was obsessive fangirl of Irish Times at the time. I was able to go up and leverage the one bit of power I had, which was the fact that I was serving the drinks. Yeah,


Eden Dawn  05:35

if you have the drinks, and it's a bunch of writers. I know what the real hierarchy is.


Fiona McCann  05:40

I'll scratch your back. you scratch mine, and it was through that interaction that I finally kind of when I had the ball. When I saw stuff, I finally asked somebody hey, I'm kind of a journalist. I think I may look like a lounge girl in my little vest and we skirt but I actually am a journalist and can you let me into building some time and somebody from that gave me a shift at the Irish Times?


Eden Dawn  06:00

They just gave you a shift. Well,


Fiona McCann  06:02

there was a lot of bills involved. That just gave me


Eden Dawn  06:06

was it like an internship or was it like a come on down and let's see what you can do.


Fiona McCann  06:11

I mean, I think we had to email a little bit and he showed I showed him some clips which are like my college clips, but then he was like, Sure, come down and do a shift, and I went down there and the only thing I had to write the whole entire night was a photo caption. It was like the nightshift. It was probably from like, I can't remember the hours but it was like dead of night. Nobody else is in the building. But it was a shift.


Eden Dawn  06:29

And they're like this photo needs captioned Yeah, that hair


Fiona McCann  06:33

is like who I am glad you asked me and then I wrote a Shakespearean Opus about that photo. Times three lines, obviously.


Eden Dawn  06:40

You know what, though? Captions are important. And I get very annoyed when I am looking at any kind of published work and there's not a caption on the photo, like why am I looking at this thing? Tell me why these people are important. Who are these people? And if you don't know your job as a journalist was you're supposed to go up and you're supposed to find out who all of those people were captions are important. So I say kudos to you, man. Thanks, lady.


Fiona McCann  07:01

To be honest, I sweat bullets over here at the time, but I also I just felt so grateful that I'd had this opportunity and I honestly had to muster up so much courage at the time. And I was sweating bullets absolutely swept bottles when I went up to them but I remember thinking like this is it this is the moment and they were so nice about it was probably well sourced.


Eden Dawn  07:21

And also because journalists were always like, Please God help us yes, yeah,


Fiona McCann  07:25

to sure you want to do this? No, we could use some


Eden Dawn  07:27

help but I love that because it does take any creative world, I think definitely takes a little bit of hutzpah


Fiona McCann  07:36

to like just to put one toe in the door and then you shove your entire self afterwards drinks train all and then you get


Eden Dawn  07:43

and just do it. Wait, is this the hotel that you told me you worked at or the bar you worked at that was owned by you? To correct I like this because I just always picture you like walking past like Bono on the edge as you go in and like tipping your hand at them like good day.


Fiona McCann  07:56

I'm walking past been on the edge and going you can do nothing for me, but there's some Irish Times journalist in the corner. I don't care who you are. So yeah, they were my celebrities. To this day. Yeah. I just I'm so grateful. I they were very wonderful about it. And, you know, I still do some work for them to this very day.


Eden Dawn  08:13

I mean, she has a column for the Irish Times right now where she reviews podcasts every week. So how's that for a full circle of life?


Fiona McCann  08:20

Oh reading is they were good drinks.


Eden Dawn  08:25

That is kind of an advanced networking move. I'm not I'm not sure all of our listeners should go up to the person that they want to work for and try to a withhold drinks and be ply them with drinks all at the same time. But you can


Fiona McCann  08:37

just pull that up. That's just my story. That's it. It's just my story. It's just your story.


Eden Dawn  08:41

And now we're gonna get into Renée and find out what a delight she is though I am sad. We did not catch the Off mic conversation about all of our deep love for 90s Hip Hop, but just know in your heart that that happened to this is


Fiona McCann  08:54

all against the background of 90s Hip Hop acts and Bono is in it.


Eden Dawn  09:00

And Bono is in it. What time


Fiona McCann  09:03

so welcome today. Thank you so much for joining us here today. Now I know that you were going to talk a little bit about maybe your road to publication and from what I understand it began in in school,


Renée Watson  09:18

right? Yes. And thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be talking with you. Well, yeah, so I I tell this story to young people and well to adults too. All the time. I've been a writer all my life. Obviously not a professional writer, not published but when I was in the second grade, I wrote a 21 page story. And my teacher was like, Oh, I think you're gonna be when you want to pick it up. Imagine that handwriting and the spelling. So long. I don't even I don't know how long it took. I was such a storyteller as a kid, just a natural gift and so thankful for the teachers who kind of saw that and nurtured it instead of just saying, oh, you know, this is my gift. It wasn't in a statement. I wrote it at home and I brought it to her. And so yeah, so she and so many others. When I was in school, kept nurturing me and telling me right or get me journals and encouraged me by giving me writing prompts. I've been a writer for a long time, took myself very serious as a writer. In seventh grade my play was chosen. I've been to the middle school which now has a different name for the spring production for the school. Yes. So I'm just saying, you know, just these talents that our young people have that they're just good at. You don't know why they sing so well and they can dance or they're always making beats you just never know what that can become for them. So I'm always trying to encourage young people, especially in the arts, to not just think of that as a hobby or something just on the side but to think of what could it become as you get older.


Eden Dawn  11:01

My best friend is a child psychiatrist, and she once told me that basically what you love to do when you're like 11 is the thing that you probably shouldn't do that makes so much sense you're just learning out what you like and that you meet really treat I don't have children but like treat children that age quite differently instead of being like Oh cute dream like you know, be like okay, you're gonna be a writer. Yeah, like you already were a writer clearly, but it's so interesting to me. I feel like


Fiona McCann  11:28

in terms of making podcasts when you were 11 Yeah, I


Eden Dawn  11:31

did. I had a tape recorder and sat down and talk to it all the time. I forced like my cats to sit in a row. Well, I love it. I think that that especially it can you tell me one line about what it's like it was


Renée Watson  11:45

so bad. Oh, the plague. So seventh grade and it was sad it was a girl was writing in her diary was like Dear Diary, or semi autobiography about bullying and this girl who felt very alone but met a friend who helped her kind of find her way. So it's a story of friendship and you know, standing up for someone who is kind of on the margins of the school. universal theme. Yeah, who knew? In the seventh grade? I was already


Fiona McCann  12:16

Yeah, yes.


Renée Watson  12:19

So I say all this to say by the time I was in college, and I went to, to college and in my late 20s to finish my degree, so I was I had lived some life at this point. And I was taking art therapy classes, and for a class assignment. We were assigned to a random picture about something that a child might be in therapy for so divorced parents, you know that something serious, and I had just returned from New Orleans had just poetry workshops and art therapy with young people there who had survived Hurricane Katrina. And their stories were just just in my heart. I could not forget those young people. So I wrote a pitcher, but for a class homework assignment, and because I am who I am, I rewrote it and rewrote it and really tweaked it and worked on it before returning it in the workshop. I got feedback, taking notes. And my professor says, I want you to stay after class. But you know, in college, that hasn't really happened. I know.


Fiona McCann  13:19

Sometimes it's bad.


Renée Watson  13:21

I was like, what exactly I was,


Eden Dawn  13:24

it was always bad news. It was it was usually discussion about talking too much, but I also have been an adjunct instructor for many years off and on and I can, maybe a couple of times did I ever keep anyone after I left. So that was a very rare


Renée Watson  13:39

thing. Yeah. What is happening?


Fiona McCann  13:42

Professor was the professor of the creative writing part


Renée Watson  13:46

of that class. Yeah. So she's a published author, illustrator, and have years in the field ever. This was at the New School in New York City. And all of our professors had to be practicing whatever they thought. So yeah, I love that I was learning from people who were doing the work as they were teaching it. So she says to me Yeah, you know, I've noticed a lot of the work that you've turned in, it's really strong. I think you have a voice for young people, but this book, in particular, I really think you should send it out and try to get help. Especially I want to introduce you to my agent, and I just am stunned and then I'm looking there's one student who stayed after slowly putting their things in their attitude when you're trying to hear comprehend No, I like mine to dismiss


Eden Dawn  14:37

it like somebody's fighting at a coffee shop. Boring often to that just trying to listen to the leaves outside.


Renée Watson  14:47

So yeah, you can tell me she wasn't eavesdropping to try to just be nosy him, but she says, Yeah, Renée, so I didn't want to say anything. In class. I was gonna wait to the last day of class but I'm an editor at Random House.


Fiona McCann  15:01

I just fell off my chair. I mean, Random House


Renée Watson  15:06

is a huge, huge publishing. It really is a


Fiona McCann  15:10

member of your classmate was an editor.


Renée Watson  15:13

Yes, she was just taking the class for her own personal growth. She didn't want to tell anyone, no one at work knew she was taking the class and she was an editor, she's just doing this solely for her so she said you know I really think you should you should get pet was you should try and and she worked on like Bob the Builder and during the exposure time of books, these are big. She was like I can't I can't help because I don't do realistic fiction, but I know people at Random House so let me introduce you to a few folks and that is how I got my foot in the door at a Random House. I will never forget that night walking home. And I called one of my sisters. And I was just like, I think my life is about to change. I knew that I would be published one day that was a go I've definitely wanted that. But I that was gonna be so far from that moment. I thought they to graduate first. I need some more experience. And definitely that I'd write for older folks, not for children. Definitely not a picture book. So it was a surprise to me, but also very no one was surprised in the sense because they were like, well, yeah, you're a writer. You've been doing this for us forever. Right? What anybody


Fiona McCann  16:23

who knows that world knows that. It's no easy thing to even get an agent I mean, get a foot in the publishing house door, like


Eden Dawn  16:33

what are the odds of us skipped in that process? You were able to jump ahead of what so many people I'll tell you what, I have a couple of books through a division of Penguin Random House. I don't have an editor at Random House is email I can directly message you know that you just weren't able to get that and then also to not have to go did you get an agent


Renée Watson  16:56

I got it was oh, they made an offer. Before I had an agent of course I was like I don't know what to do with this. And so I talked to my professor on that pitch. It was I sent the pitch of it to an editor. Her name is Susie. She was just so kind and she was like yes, we want this. And she made an offer and I was like oh wait a minute. Right away. So I talked to my professor who became a mentor and I was like, this is happening. It's happening really fast. And so she introduced me to her agent. And I will say I I didn't even know I was so naive and young and just so grateful and thankful. It didn't dawn on me like Renée, you have an offer from Random House. You can probably get any agent you want right now. Yeah, take your time really interview people think about what you want. And so I said yes to my first agent who was fine and amazing, but long term. Definitely I needed someone I could grow with Yeah, but in the beginning, it was perfectly I mean, he was able to negotiate a good contract for me and helped me understand the business side of publishing. I share this story because you could walk away and think Oh, so you gotta let the audience who you knew and they introduced you but really what I think it was is that opportunity met preparedness.


Fiona McCann  18:20

Right? You describe how you had like, really edited your book and worked hard.


Renée Watson  18:25

Yeah. And so I always tell people, especially because I write for young people. A lot of times my audiences are young people who are aspiring to something and I'm like, it's good to have those big, lofty goals. But first, just be good at the craft. Like really just be good when no one is looking. Do the work when it's just you and because I was doing the work and writing so many things. When my editor was finished when we're finished with the picture, but she says, So do you have any other ideas? And I was like, oh, because I have been writing for all these years and I had so many short stories that I could make longer into novels. So my first novel what mama left me was once a plugin I wrote at Jefferson High School. And I took that and take those characters in those themes and turn that into a novel. So I was ready. I was so prepared because I had all this stuff just kind of waiting. Oh, this material that you'd already been working on. Yeah, so my first few books I think probably up into this side of home where already stories that have been in me from I'm talking like high school, middle school days when I was writing and just keeping things in folders. The thing


Eden Dawn  19:41

I like about it too is and it's something I often told my students and I feel like we even tried to do here in the building is it's about sharing your work. I feel like like when like a good lesson to get into as a young as especially as a young person getting into writing is share your work. Don't just keep it to yourself because it's a vulnerable place to share your work when you don't feel or even when you do feel professional. You know what I mean? So it's that you're sharing it with people that you're reworking it that you're meeting with the kids, all of that about is that like network and community and that in my experience for sure has been where some of the good stuff happens when you're just at home by yourself in the basement, you know?


Renée Watson  20:21

Yeah, right and can be so isolating so I think the more you can engage with the writing community, and give of yourself the better it feeds you to something that feeds me the more I hang out with folks doing writing workshops, getting critiqued, you know that, that give and take I'm offering something and I'm also going to sit and take something to all of that has helped shape my writing career for sure.


Fiona McCann  20:47

I think that the fact that you had worked your bottom off on this assignment, you know, you didn't phone it in, we've all found in college assignments, like for god's sakes. Like that's, that's the difference. I mean, you had a class full of people, where did they publish all of them? No. seems unlikely. seems unlikely. And I just feel like that's also a testament to its the craft. It's some kind of talent and ideas and then it's that slog of, Okay, I gotta get down and get this done. In the best possible way. And then it's, Oh, I haven't I believe Renée would have got there anyway, if you'd been in that class, or if it had been a little bit longer knocking on doors like I really think that but it is interesting that that moment, as you said, you can pinpoint as I think my life's gonna change. I'm curious about one thing that you said as well. You didn't originally intend to write for a younger audience, right? Oh,


Renée Watson  21:42

never. Never. It's so wild to me that I have picture books and middle grade novels in the world. I never thought I would write for


Fiona McCann  21:52

that age and because that book got published, right, that assignment got. It was my


Renée Watson  21:56

first but it's a place where hurricanes happen. And it's illustrated by shot just strictly Yeah. And we got to go and go on a book tour and give books to the students who inspired the story. I'd had to meet them five years later after there was some rebuilding in New Orleans and they were in a better place. So it was a beautiful thing for me to be able to go and donate bucks and just be with the students who, who started it, you know, because I wanted to make sure that we weren't out here, but this but about them and that they didn't even know it exists. So yeah, it was a beautiful experience to be able to go with Shandra and we did poetry and art workshops with the young people


Eden Dawn  22:35

did something just click when you started writing for middle grade, and was there a different feeling to your writing or do you feel like people were drawn to it and you said okay, sure. You know,


Renée Watson  22:48

I think I probably was always writing for that agent. I just didn't know it and no one told me. People would say you are a good writer. That was a good story. It wasn't until I was in school that I learned. Oh, this is why a or this is middle grade. You have a voice for middle grade, one of my professors would always say that, and that was like really so then I just started reading those books, every read books I grew up on, and then all the new ones that were coming out and I was like, this makes sense that why she's saying this to me. And I was working with young people at the time. So I was a teaching artist for many years. I mentioned teaching poetry to young people. I did that work in Portland and once I moved to New York for school, I was doing it there as well. And their stories my students who I would be with, Oh, let's see maybe three times a week for 90 minute sessions. For the whole school year. So I got to really know them. And they were my inspiration for sure. And my first students


Fiona McCann  23:49

how important is school for somebody who wants to be a writer like did you do you think it's valuable to sort of put your you know your chips into some kind of college program?


Renée Watson  24:00

I do. I mean, I think if it's not college, I know everyone can afford that as a privilege to be able to go I was on full scholarship. So if you can't go I do think it's important to be in a critique group. So So I have two groups of people when I just need to be loved and I just need to be encouraged and I need a cheerleader. I have those readers who I know they're just gonna love this. And that's what I need right now. But then when I really need the real feedback, like this whole chapter, what is happening here?


Eden Dawn  24:31

Right in our house, we call it support or solutions right now, do you need support or solution? Sometimes you have to say upfront when you're like, here's what's going on. I just need support for the record. This is not solving anything and that sounds so true. Just tell me you love me and I'm pretty. And then sometimes you're like, I need solutions


Renée Watson  24:49

to help you work through it. It's a good thing to keep in mind for all things. So yes, I think it's important if you're not going to college, to enroll in workshops to get writer friends, or people who love to read everyone's not a writer but I have had great feedback from a few friends of mine who are avid readers, so they just know good story. Yeah. And they're able to give me feedback, especially in the beginning of my career. So yeah, I think it's important to connect yourself with a community of creative folks who you can kind of rub up against and learn from and they can learn from you and you perfect the craft that way for sure


Fiona McCann  25:27

in a way like you're describing. I don't think I even understood the possibilities of those worlds when I was younger and what you needed. You know, the idea of going to college and studying writing was ridiculous because


Renée Watson  25:38

get your job. Exactly. There's so many people said that to me.


Fiona McCann  25:41

Yeah. And oh, they do? Yes. And you were like


Renée Watson  25:46

no I cared. I was just I just I knew I just felt I was put on this earth to do this thing. And how can I make this make sense for my life? And so I had people who are just, I don't know, like, I don't exist. Exactly. I feel like people just couldn't dream with me. And so I have very few people who fully understand our support it what I wanted to do and then I was just courageous


Fiona McCann  26:14

and confident like I do think you have to believe a little bit in it. Like it's so easy to be moved off this path. Yes, well


Eden Dawn  26:24

that's why I have to say I was really excited you were coming on today because, you know, question. I feel like when you are in our world, sometimes people ask you like, where did you get the confidence to do that? Or where did you sometimes maybe even where to get the audacity to do that whether it's be a writer or like I host a lot of events but things that make you have to like be in front of a lot of people and be really confident. And if I really dial it down I think so much of it has to do with the books I read when I was young. I really do you know, I was obsessed with Nancy Drew who was always kicking by leaving the boys behind. And The Baby Sitters Club. Yes. Oh my gosh, nobody was cooler than Claudia Kishi to me. Are you kidding? And then obviously our girl Ramona Quimby, who as growing up as Oregonians, like we saw her and all of her glory and her funk and all of it but it made you not true age do not afraid to be the audacious young woman. I'm just


Fiona McCann  27:24

listened to this think of what I was stumped in the back of the wardrobe trying to get into Narnia that does depend on the books you read.


Eden Dawn  27:32

Those Those audacious characters I saw myself in them and they gave me inspiration and a little bit of that courage and I was excited to know about your work in general because you're doing that for a whole other generation.


Renée Watson  27:48

Thank girls I hope so.


Eden Dawn  27:50

I know that you are and and for other people, you know those those people I talked about, most of those characters were white, you know, I mean, obviously not Jesse and Claudia, and there are some of the Baby Sitter girls, but that you are able to give that so that especially young Black women can see themselves in a character. So clearly, I think is just so much more formative for all of us.


Renée Watson  28:13

I think so too. You know, I always say that. Yes, I read those books I went Judy Blume like I was an avid reader. When I saw myself in literature, it was poetry, because there weren't a lot of books that I that I had access. To. Were the main characters were Black, and Black and happy if I read a book that was about a Black family or something. It was something like historical fiction perspective about enslaved people or the civil rights movement or you know, struggle and pain and I needed those stories. I think we all need to know this country's history, but it was also like, can I just do Black joy? Yeah, can we just have some Black joy? And I didn't know how to articulate that as a kid but I had the poetry of Nikki Giovanni Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and that is when I was like no, these people they sound like my people. They're talking about my aunties and, and the folks that my church talk they are saying things that I care about them and I'm thinking about and so I gravitated to poetry for that reason of what you were saying. And and I think that is when I got discouraged and there are still moments where you're just like, I can't do this, or what have I gotten myself into. I don't know how to finish this book or this project. Or I'm trying to advocate for things like my characters looking out and describe them, the tone of their skin, the kink of their hair, the size of their body. On the cover, all of those things you have to kind of push back against in publishing. I think about my and Nikki and Langston and these giants who wrote their story, with no shame and with great pride and I lean on their example and I think that is what helped me keep pushing when I would have people say that dream is wild and I don't you you need to figure out how to make some money that's not gonna make money for you you're not gonna survive New York is hard. Are you sure you want to move there? You know, all the kind of and I think some of it was out of actual care. You know, there were some people who were just like trying to squash my dreams, but there were people who loved me and maybe,


Fiona McCann  30:26

you know, and is it too much of how all of that


Eden Dawn  30:30

that's their own fears. Right, right.


Renée Watson  30:33

Exactly. So yeah, I really love people who have done so much and may gave me strength to carry on.


Fiona McCann  30:40

And that's what you're doing now for this next generation, which is wonderful. I grew up in it, you know, a small country that at the time was pretty insular in certain ways. We, you know, we had mass emigration, but I didn't really know very much about the world at all. And I learned about it through books, so much of it, and it and for me, a lot of the books I didn't have Nancy Drew, maybe you didn't have Nancy Drew, but for some reason that's not resonating, but I didn't have The Baby-Sitters Club.


Eden Dawn  31:10

no one can see the faces that Renée are making right now. Yeah, just we're


Renée Watson  31:14

just sad. Oh, no, you didn't have The Baby-Sitters Club.


Eden Dawn  31:19

This is how we became so entrepreneurial.


Fiona McCann  31:22

I have a lot of books and my parents were great. And we went to the library all the time. But I remember that a lot of the characters who were doing the fun stuff were male. And so my first stories as a young writer, were all male characters because I thought, Oh, the other fun happens to men. They have the adventures so I have to be a male protagonist in order to ventures that makes me so I just love the idea now that there are young Black girls who will read your book and see that they can be the protagonist in their own story. Yeah, that's, that's awesome. Yeah, that's it, and you probably can, I'm sure you feel that energy because so much of what you do is also educating and meeting these readers, right?


Renée Watson  32:02

Yes, it's the best part of my job is getting to not just write the book, but meet the young people who I'm writing for and the educators who are nurturing them. Sometimes I'll look out in the audience and I will see a person who looks like the character and they're wearing the same hairstyle or and I just, I love that and that is so important to me, and that is why like I said, I have a case so hard for my covers. Yeah, just I don't play when it comes to make sure there is representation that you can see on the cover of this dark-skinned Black girl who is happy like there there was a phase and children's that refers we couldn't even be on the cover as dark skinned Black girls and then okay, fine. You can have the dark skin but they will be looking so sad and so down by hand. Yeah. And I was like, no, no, I want her smiling. Or I just want her to exist. Like she doesn't need to be super happy or depressed, like just a neutral face with her braids or you know, thinking of Nala on the cover of levers and revolution. And Jade for piecing me together. I've just gotten better over the years of advocating for myself. Because I think I'm in I'm advocating for the reader and I want especially young Black girls to see reflections of their neighborhood their families themselves on on the cover. I think that's so important.


Fiona McCann  33:29

What do you have that kind of power as a writer, I always wondered whether you're you know, whether they're just like, leave the publishing to us.


Renée Watson  33:37

I think in former years, it was harder. And I when I my first book came out in 2010. And it was much harder for me to have a say in what the cover would look like. Two things have happened over the years. One is the conversation has changed you know, we need diverse books started around. What was that? Maybe 2014 2015. So there was more advocacy for diverse budgets. And then for what what do those books look like and who are they written by and all of that conversation became more public it was happening that they were kind of like the bullhorn that amplified those conversations, and I got better at advocating for myself. So simultaneously while the conversation was happening in the field, I also just took more ownership of my career, and I just have learned and I think this is true for a lot of, of our lives. No one is going to care about your work like you do. Yeah, I couldn't be a better advocate than you. Right. Yeah. So I had to kind of get over my fear of, I want to be likable and I don't want What if I get labeled as you know, difficult. Yeah. All the stereotypes of being a woman that's too aggressive and a Black woman that's angry. I had to get that out of my head and think of what is best for the story. What is best for this reader. And really,


Fiona McCann  34:56

plus a third thing that happened is he sold a million hope that like you got to play with me Yeah.


Renée Watson  35:05

Well, it's funny, the more so there was there have been moments in my career where I've kind of, you know, there's all the meetings with marketing has a vision for what the book should be editorial that I do, and we're all trying to get on the same page. So there's been some moments where I've really had to push, push, push, and then I'm like, oh, god, okay. They gave me what I want. I hope this Yeah, yeah. So that's kind of what's happened to it. I have good instincts. You know, and I turns out, I know my people, I know what I'm doing. And so I think the more that I've kind of proven to them like listen, just please listen to me. Trust me. I am not right about everything. But one thing I am right about is that Black girls need and want to see the reflection on covers. So let's work to make that happen together. You know, yeah.


Eden Dawn  35:55

And I feel like that battle well a couple of things for especially starting out writers I always feel like, I do feel like choose your battles. Like there are some things that are not that important to me or somebody's like, I feel like we could cut that chapter and I'm like, Okay, well, I kind of liked it. But if we need to save space, so that when you can have those things, we're like ok. I am a team player. I hear everybody else but this thing is a non negotiable for me. I do think is important, you know, and so that when you do have that firm thing, and then the other part to it is especially your age of readers. There is something about books we read at that age, that imprint on our brain, unlike anything else I could sit here and write out the entire plot to Howl’s Moving Castle for you, though I have not read it since like 1989. But because at that age, and I can't tell you that about most books I read last year, you know, there's just something at that time where you're falling in love with reading and characters that imprint on you so hard that it's like yeah, it's worth having that argument. You want somebody to see themselves. Absolutely it matters. Yes.


Renée Watson  37:01

I totally agree. I say this to new writers as well like pick your non negotiables early like figure out what are your values as a writer Why are you telling stories? And so yeah, it's a conversation and it's an I don't always say so. There are many things and I'm like, I don't like that font or I don't like that but I'm never gonna I will never say that it immediate you know, and you just let all of that stuff go so that when you need to, you know, then you can have you have a little bit more weight also because if you're always complaining people are not gonna take any of this seriously. Always have something to say. So I think it's just a life lesson is to think about when to use your voice and when to be quiet.


Eden Dawn  37:43

Well and what you said I think is so smart is have those non negotiables based on your values, because that is a different thing where it's like, yeah, we'll have a static bomb and but like, I can remember one thing we're in an editor I had on an article I had written interviewing, writing some small business saying, and the editor had interjected like a little bit of a joke. About the person's name. As people who have unusual names. I just never think it's funny. That was such a thing. I'm like, non negotiable. This is getting cut. I think I came in with guns and blades and he was like, okay. Okay, and then we just moved on. I was like, all right. Because it several years I had never done that, you know, and so it is. Alright,


Renée Watson  38:28

I'm glad you said something. And I think too, it's important to remember that people are on their growing edge too. They probably don't even realize that that's offensive. There are some people who are malicious and just have an agenda. Yes. Most people I feel They just they want to make the best product possible. Are they just trying to make the story the best that they feel is going to be and and we might disagree on what that looks like. And so having conversations and really listening and trying to come in with my judgment about the industry and publishing and how that has also helped me I think long term just have the staying power because you can get discouraged and frustrated. Like, why do I even have to have this conversation? I can't believe we're having a conversation about making a big girl be big on a cover, but that is where we're at. And so what am I going to do either I'm not going to write the story, or I'm gonna have the conversation and make sure Nala looks like herself or Amara from Some Places More Than Others. And I've realized that and having that conversation most people are like, yeah, why don't we see that more and we actually she, and let's make her fashionable and let you know, and then they get into it. And it's a beautiful moment of growth, I think for the team and for marketing and the artists and everyone that's involved, but I had to be the person that kind of raised my hand and say, hey guys can we you know,


Fiona McCann  40:03

conversate? Yeah. I mean, that's good for everybody. I want white boys to see that on the cover, too. I want everybody to see that on the cover. I think that that's, that can only be a positive, but it is always worth going in. I think I had a tendency in the past to just sort of walk into the meeting with somebody like a publisher. And be like, well, they know everything. No, I you know, and nobody knows everything. And we're all we need to push all of these things as we go along. And we're part of that push a little bit. And not to sort of assume that somebody, obviously you have to respect expertise to some extent, but it doesn't mean a conversation can't happen. Absolutely. Well, and


Eden Dawn  40:39

it's a great argument of why diversity matters. Not only in these, like placating ways of like having a character of color. It's like no, you need to have you need to have diversity in the art department and the marketing department as the authors because that's everybody's bringing their perspective.


Renée Watson  40:56

Yes, absolutely. Yeah.


Eden Dawn  40:59

I do have one more question before we let you go. I'm really curious as you write for this age group and have now for several years as the I feel like kids are changing so much the world is changing so much, but you keep writing for people that are generally the same age. I'm just interested, like, how does that change how you write about them? Does that impact the way you're writing for middle grade kids? I don't,


Renée Watson  41:30

I don't think that it impacts the way that I write my impact. You know. So you might have a cell phone versus I don't know, 10 years ago aside, you wouldn't have had it right you would have not on a cell. But I think at the core, even how you were saying when you were younger, how much you read and the things that matter. To you. I think at the heart of it. Humans are dealing with the same emotions over and over and over and over again, right, and that we all want to be seen. And we all want to be validated. We want to be heard and so in that way, I can keep writing for them because I know young people in the in the larger sense of just like I know what it's happening at that age where you are trying to figure out who you are you're trying to blend in but stand down like all of the complications and nuances of being a young person. I think all of that remains the same so I just have to be good at in my real life, being in relationship with young people so that I can be listening to have my ear to the ground of how they say what they say but what they're saying and what they're talking about is the same. It's the same stuff I was talking about and worrying about when I was their age. So yeah, that's the dance. That's interesting.


Eden Dawn  42:47

He must always be the coolest person at a party. If you like no, I don't know about that. I feel like you would know all the slang and all this stuff to be cool. And I feel I walk up the kids and I'm like, Are ya hip?


Renée Watson  43:04

That is hilarious.


Fiona McCann  43:08

Yeah, you're still cooling.


Eden Dawn  43:10

Get the narc out of here.


Fiona McCann  43:11

One final final final question is I wondered if you had to leave any young listeners I guess with some advice who who want to become an artist or a writer or something in that past can sometimes seem impossible, like or like it doesn't exist for them? What would your advice be?


Renée Watson  43:32

I would say do the thing that scares you. It's okay to be afraid to pursue it. I think what we're afraid is a signal that we really care about it. So do the thing that you're afraid of. That's the only way to become brave, is to actually do the thing. And if you don't see anyone that's doing it and you pave the way so that the next person who comes after you won't have it so hard. So just because you don't see anyone doing it doesn't mean that it can't be that


Fiona McCann  44:01

brilliant. Words To Live By.


Eden Dawn  44:04

I know really good really does. Um, thank you, Renée, so much for joining us. I'd like to talk to you for hours. You can read more about Renée at René or follow her on Twitter @RenéeWauthor or @HarlanPortland on Instagram. That's it from We Can't Print This for today. You can see more info about the episodes and we'll link to Rene's website at and you can follow us on all our socials at that handle.


Fiona McCann  44:35

Thank you also to our producer Miranda Shafer and to Dave Decker for our music. This podcast was recorded at the Writer's Block in Portland. And we want to send the biggest thanks to our third work wife Rachel Ritchie for replacing the snacks


Eden Dawn  44:53

We have things in a very important hierarchy. If you're a writer with a great behind the story story write to us at Thank you, Renée.

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