In some novels, the setting is far more than just a location, it’s a character within its own right. That’s certainly the case in Some Places More Than Others, Renée Watson’s latest middle grade novel. The book follows Amara, an 11-year-old from Portland, Oregon who joins her father on a business trip to New York City. She’s thrilled to visit Harlem, where her father grew up, and along the way discovers more about herself and her family than she ever could’ve imagined. Here, Watson talks about the complexity of home and the importance of knowing where her characters come from.
“All of these places made me, are making me.” –Some Places More Than Others
In the middle of a summer night when Portland sleeps, you can hear a choir of crickets singing their lullabies. The night sky is decorated with stars and no matter how hot it is during the day, there is always a cooling breeze once the sun goes down. The hustle and bustle of the city hushes at night under the shadow of Mt. Hood.
This is home.
If Portland were a person, I’d call her laid back, chill, easy-going. I’d say she’s welcoming but I’d warn you to be careful, to guard your heart. Portland is called the City of Roses and as the cliché goes, every rose has its thorn. There is beauty in Portland, yes. There is also the ugly truth of sundown laws, redlining, gentrification, and racially motivated violence.
This is home.
Home for me is also New York City. I live in Harlem where there is a constant hum—the brakes of a bus, music blasting out of someone’s car, the bounce of the basketball during a street ball tournament, laughter from neighbors sitting on their stoops watching people come and go. There is a vibe in Harlem. I can’t walk Harlem streets without remembering that something special happened here. There are reminders tucked away all over the neighborhood—street names, statues, museums.
This is home.
New York City is also a place of extremes. There is great poverty and wealth, gentrification and homelessness. There is diversity, yes. But there are segregated neighborhoods. New York City is the place where Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and Eric Garner were killed by police officers.
This is home.
Home is complicated. Every place has a story, every city has a past. Just as I need to know the backstory of my character, I need to understand where she comes from. I need to know the story of the city. What happened before she arrived? How is the present impacted by the past? I want my characters to be curious about these stories. In many ways, the setting is a character. The names of streets, the monuments around the city—all of these are clues that my character can investigate. As my character learns about the place she lives in—or is visiting—she learns about herself. When I write, as much as I am developing the story of my character, I am telling the story of the place she lives in. To know and understand my character, you have to know and understand where she’s from.
In Some Places More Than Others, Amara visits Harlem for the first time. It is life changing. Coming from a suburb of Portland, she has never seen this many Black people in one place. She has never seen Black history celebrated year-round, an everyday preservation of her heritage. She is also in shock at how loud it is, how many people are crowding the streets, all the shopping and street vendors. By seeing her amazement, readers get to know Amara even more. As she asks questions about all she is taking in, readers learn about Harlem.
I believe local history is important, especially the local history of the marginalized people within that place. As I work on the plot, I ask myself: What don’t I know about the place where my character lives? How can this place be a friend, an enemy? What does this place have to teach my character?
For me, setting is not just the backdrop. It is essential to my character’s growth, to her journey.
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.