One of the most wonderful and important functions of fiction is representation. Fiction allows us to see ourselves reflected in its pages, and it lets us dream about what might be possible. Young adult authors Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan explore the need to have a diverse range of experiences seen and heard in their new book Watch Us Rise, which tells the story of two friends who found a Women’s Rights Club at their school. Here, Watson and Hagan open up about what it was like to write a book that would have represented and inspired their younger selves.
When I was a girl I loved reading. I loved searching the shelves and finding my treasure: a book from the Ramona series, a gem from Judy Blume. In many ways I saw myself in these girls. I was from Oregon like Ramona Quimby and my room was messy, too. Like Margaret, from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, I had questions about faith and my body. My friends and I were obsessed with who was wearing a bra yet and who already had their period. I felt like I knew those girls so well. But I was also very different from these characters. I was Black. I was fat. And I didn’t see big Black girls in books having ordinary experiences. Books about big girls were about bullying. Books about Black girls were about suffering. So even though I loved to read, what I really loved was writing. When I had control of the story, characters could look like me and they could have everyday, regular experiences like the ones I had in my real life.
This was what I needed to see in a book.
It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started reading the poetry of Lucille Clifton and Maya Angelou. At sixteen I saw the beauty and strength and everydayness of Black women in literature. At sixteen I started to find my voice.
I am not a girl anymore and still I am searching for a diverse representation of fat bodies. In Watch Us Rise, I wanted to create space for girls like Jasmine to exist without apology. She is not on a diet. She gets the guy without changing her body to receive his affection. I am honored Jasmine’s story exists alongside the fat characters in Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, Becky Albertalli’s The Upside of Unrequited, and Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’. I wish I had those books when I was a teenager.
In this time when the literary community is being more intentional about inclusiveness, I hope we remember fat girls. I hope we see their full bodies on covers more and more. I hope we write about their wholeness, not just their weight. I hope we make them superheroes and love interests. In this time of speaking up, I hope we give girls space to be nuanced and layered, that we give them books and teach them about women who will inspire them to rise.
When I was a girl, I loved creating stories in my mind: whole worlds of imaginary lands, people, and places. My brother and I formed bands with our next door neighbors, we built restaurants in our sandbox, and created elaborate set-ups that included Barbies, superheroes, and G.I. Joe dolls. It was those endless hours of pretending that allowed me the space to dream up faraway lands and characters. Reading conjured those same moments of playing with my brother and friends—it took me to another world. In my hometown, we had a book and candy store called Bardstown Booksellers, and my best memories are going there for fresh, new books and a bag of gummy candies! I devoured Amelia Bedelia and all the Fudge books, and read every single one of the Baby-Sitters Club series.
In the 10th grade I started reading poets like Sandra Cisneros, Ntozake Shange, and Marge Piercy, who wrote The Moon is Always Female. At sixteen, I was already searching for women who were sharing their stories.
I am not a girl anymore and still I am searching for women who are writing the truth of their lives. I am excited for my daughters to read books like Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed and Pride by Ibi Zoboi—books that celebrate friendship, sisterhood, identity, and books that tell love stories and honor neighborhoods. I feel so lucky to be in the world with such a diverse range of voices. When I was a girl, I always dreamed of the future, and now that I have two daughters, I am excited to be creating the kind of work I want them to grow up with. I want them to understand and relate to Chelsea in Watch Us Rise. Chelsea is figuring it out. She embodies a lot of feminist ideals and is also conflicted about her desires and about what she’s learned about beauty and how she should present herself in the world. I want my daughters to know that it’s okay to be complicated, that there is no one way to be a feminist.
Renée Watson is the New York Times-bestselling, Newbery Honor, and Coretta Scott King Award-winning author of Piecing Me Together, This Side of Home, What Momma Left Me, and Betty Before X, co-written with Ilyasah Shabazz, as well as two acclaimed picture books: A Place Where Hurricanes Happen and Harlem’s Little Blackbird, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. She is the founder of I, Too, Arts Collective, a nonprofit committed to nurturing underrepresented voices in the creative arts, and currently lives in New York City.
Ellen Hagan is a writer, performer, and educator. Her poetry collections include: Hemisphere and Crowned. Her work can be found in ESPN Magazine, She Walks in Beauty and Southern Sin. She is the recipient of a NoMAA Creative Arts Grant and received grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts. National arts residencies include The Hopscotch House and Louisiana Arts Works. Ellen is the Director of the Poetry & Theatre Departments at the DreamYard Project and directs their International Poetry Exchange Program with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. She co-leads the Alice Hoffman Young Writer’s Retreat at Adelphi University.