An interview with Renée Watson! If you know anything about my reading life, or you follow this blog, then you know how much I LOVE Renée Watson’s writing. She manages to keep things unpretentious with plenty of rhythm and heart. Her most recent YA novel is Love Is a Revolution. I adored it and reviewed it last week. Today, Renée and I discuss this book, writing about body image, family, and what community means to her. Soak in every single word.
Interview with Renée Watson
Hi Renée, as a huge fan of your writing, I’m honored to be chatting with you about a book of yours I loved wholeheartedly. Love Is a Revolution is a story of self-love and family. What inspired you to write this story?
Thanks, Afoma, for inviting me to talk with you about Love Is a Revolution.
I was inspired to write this story after finishing Watch Us Rise, which I co-wrote with Ellen Hagan. The main characters in that story are so passionate about activism and I loved going on that journey with girls so bold and brave (and I know teens like that in real life). I have been thinking about the girls I know who are not overtly activists, who are still figuring out who they are and how they want to show up in the world. I wanted to write a story for those girls–who definitely care about their community and what is happening in the world but who are not the first to volunteer to make a speech at a rally or participate in a protest.
And of course, I wanted to explore love in its many variations: love of self, love of family, love of community, and romantic love.
I really liked Nala. Her earnestness, honesty, and love for her family are so heartwarming. Yet, she was obviously so eager to be appealing to Tye. Why is this something you wanted to write about?
I think in one way or another, we’ve all hidden parts of ourselves to fit in and be accepted. Nala goes to an extreme, for sure, but I think the thing about her that is relatable is that sometimes we aren’t honest with each other or ourselves in order to keep the peace, to impress, to be polite. I wanted to write about the struggle that exists when a person wants something so bad they have to think about what they are willing to do to get it.
In every book I write, the character surprises me in some way. In Love Is a Revolution, Nala forced me to rethink some of the tropes of the rom-com genre and so even though there are moments when she is head-over-heels for Tye, there comes a point where she even shocked me with her choice of how to handle their relationship. I hope readers identify with her struggle and ultimate choice to not lose herself in love, but to show up as her true self in every relationship.
Family is a central theme in all your stories — and they come in different shapes and sizes. From Amara’s conventional family to Serenity’s life with her grandparents, and now Nala living with Imani’s family. What does family mean to you?
Family is our first community. It’s where we learn about empathy, forgiveness, sharing. Even in unhealthy family situations, we learn something about life and relationships. Because of this, I think it’s important to show a variety of family dynamics. Not everyone comes from a “traditional” family structure and I want that reflected in my work.
From a craft standpoint, including family members as secondary characters provides so much material for plot and character development. My main character is who she is because of how she was raised, who she loves and who loves (or doesn’t love) her. Bringing the extended family to life gives me an opportunity to put my main character in situations that either build her up or tear her down and all of that makes for a good story.
Imani and Nala’s relationship becomes strained partly because of Imani’s over-involvement in community work to her family’s detriment, in a sense. How does one find a balance between showing up for community and for themselves?
Balance is so hard. Our culture is one of extremes and it’s so easy to put all of our energy into one thing while neglecting something else. More and more I am realizing that if I don’t take care of myself, I will be no good for anyone else. One practical thing I do to keep myself balanced is having a color-coded calendar. My author life is one color, personal life is another. When I look at my calendar I can easily see if there’s too much of one color, not enough of the other. It’s a visual cue that maybe I’m too busy and I need to schedule in time with friends or just a free day to do nothing.
When it comes to Imani and her over-involvement in the community, I think part of it is that she is running away from the issues at home, not wanting to deal with her true feelings about Nala living with her. Sometimes we make ourselves take care of everything and everyone else as a way to avoid having to do some personal work. When I have overcommitted myself, I’ve learned to reflect and ask myself: What am I running from? What am I trying to avoid?
I loved that Nala loved her body, and generally I enjoy the way you portray body positivity by writing characters who are bigger but not agonizing over their bodies. Is this something you intentionally try to portray, and why?
Yes, it is very intentional. I think representation of diverse body sizes is important. Sometimes I write about characters with big bodies and their weight is an actual part of the plot/issue in the book (Watch Us Rise). Sometimes I don’t mention the size of my character at all and you only know by the cover (Some Place More Than Others). With Nala and her family, I wanted to have a big girl exist and fully love and accept her body without any talk of changing her body or being bullied because of her body.
I also felt it was very important to include more than one big person in the story. Nala, Imani, and their mothers, aunts, and grandmother are all varying body sizes–just like people are in real life. And they all have different perspectives on how they talk about their weight. Imani reclaims the word fat and says it’s just a descriptive word and shouldn’t carry any negative meaning. Their grandmother says phrases like big-boned, plump, thick. Nala calls herself big.
When thinking about writing a love story, I wanted to make Tye fall for a girl who does not meet mainstream beauty standards. Nala is a big girl and she has dark brown skin. We don’t often see girls like her be the one sought after by the handsome heartthrob. Big girls, Black girls deserve love stories, too.
You’ve written so many excellent books for children. I cannot wait for the next Ryan Hart book! Would you ever consider writing for adults?
Yes! I’d love to write an adult novel. I have a few ideas. Right now, I’m focused on children’s literature but I do hope to do adult one day.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I love music. Pre-pandemic life when we were able to be out and about, I loved going to hear live music. I also really enjoy photography. I unwind by going on long walks and taking photos of my surroundings.
What are some wonderful middle-grade and adult books you’ve read recently?
I really enjoyed Paula Chase’s middle grade novel, Turning Point. I also highly recommend Brandy Colbert’s debut middle grade, The Only Black Girls in Town, and Legacy by Nikki Grimes (I loved this too!).
On the adult side, I’ve been reading a lot of poetry. Nikki Giovanni’s new book, Make Me Rain is a new favorite (of course) and I really enjoyed The Selected Works of Audre Lorde edited by Roxane Gay.
Are you currently working on anything you can tell us a bit about?
I just finished up the final edits for book two of the Ryan Hart series, Ways to Grow Love. It releases on April 27th.
What do you hope readers get from Nala’s story?
I hope readers are inspired to start their own self-love revolutions!
Thank you so much for your time, Renée!
Buy Love Is a Revolution
Meet Renée Watson
Renée Watson is a New York Times bestselling author, educator, and community activist. Her young adult novel, Piecing Me Together (Bloomsbury, 2017) received a Coretta Scott King Award and Newbery Honor. Her children’s picture books and novels for teens have received several awards and international recognition. She has given readings and lectures at many renown places including the United Nations, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Embassy in Japan and New Zealand. Her poetry and fiction centers around the experiences of Black girls and women, and explores themes of home, identity, and the intersections of race, class, and gender.