Renée Watson's young adult novel Piecing Me Together tells the story of Jade, a Portland, Ore., high school student with "coal skin and hula-hoop hips." Jade has won a scholarship to St. Francis, a private school that's mostly white. She makes friends and does well, but she also feels the school sees her as some kind of project — and she doesn't like it.
A mentor named Maxine comes into her life with a program called Woman to Woman. Maxine is black too, and once lived in her neighborhood, but Jade wonders if Maxine just sees her as someone who needs to be saved.
"She's wondering is success only achievable, can it only happen, [if] she leaves her neighborhood, her family, all the things that she calls home," Watson says. "Because she's getting these messages from the adults in her life that in order to succeed, she has to get out of her economically poor neighborhood."
Piecing Me Together recently received the Coretta Scott King Award from the American Library Association, and it's also a John Newbery Medal honor book.
On how her own experiences informed the book
So I've been both student and mentor. I know what it's like to feel like people have come into my neighborhood to save me, fix me, take me out of what I call home, and of a place that I find beauty in, you know? Jade loves her community, and she sees beauty in the everyday things and in the everyday people, who are hard-working and talented and brilliant but just don't have the same opportunities as she's been given.
And I've also been the mentor in programs who've come in with really good intentions, and really wanting to help and support young people, and making mistakes along the way, and trying to figure out what is the best way to go about that. So I'm drawing from my own experience, my personal experience, and also what I've kind of just seen and witnessed.
I am an advocate for mentoring programs. I think the problem is that sometimes adults just don't listen and don't ask enough questions. And so there's a difference between coming into a neighborhood with your own agenda and thinking that you know what's best for that place and the young people there, and coming and saying, "Hey, I have some ideas. What do you think? How can I support you? What are your goals and how can we work together to achieve that?"
So, over time in the book, Maxine, the mentor, realizes that she needs to kind of slow down, ask some questions, and let Jade speak for herself. It's a lot of give and take — what can a community give to the outsiders coming in and what can the outsiders give to that community?
On Jade's relationship with her mentor, Maxine
I really wanted to explore class. ... Maxine is black and the school, they make the assumption that, "Well, she's a black woman, and so that means you're gonna get along just fine." And they don't at first because it's such a vast difference in the way that they grew up and the resources that Maxine has, that it just takes a moment for them to figure out where do they connect and how can they really see each other beyond superficial, materialistic things.
On what moved her to write about race, gender and class
I write realistic fiction because I want young people and the adults in their lives to have a way to talk about what's happening, but have some space so you can talk about the characters in the book, and not necessarily your own story yet, if you're not ready to have that conversation.
And I know from personal experience that, you know, when you're a child, it's not that you don't know stuff is happening. A lot of times, adults are just not talking with you about it. And so, you can feel very strange, feeling this tension in your city or your community, but no one is saying anything. And so I hope that my books provide space for young people to explore, and say, "Yeah, I feel seen." That's what I want young people to do — to talk to each other and to the adults in their lives.
Lawrence Wu and Lauren Hodges produced and editedthis interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.