Ladies First: Renee Watson

Renee-Watson-HeasdshotRenee graduated from The New School where she earned a certificate in Drama Therapy and studied Creative Writing. She authored and debuted a one woman show titled Roses are Red, Women are Blue at the historical Lincoln Center in New York City. She uses her talents as writer and actor to assist youth coping with trauma. She’s helped young people work towards overcoming some of life’s most horrific issues including sexual and physical abuse, violence and the aftermath of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. She is the author of several award nominated children’s books, one of which was featured on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Her book, Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills was nominated for a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work. I could go on and on about Renee but wouldn’t you rather hear from her?

Hello Renee, How are you?
I’m doing well. I am so honored to talk with you. Thank you for inviting me to be apart of your launch issue.

Your writing career has taken off! I’ll come back to that in a minute, I would like to start by asking, Why did you leave Portland?
First, let me say that Portland is still home to me and I come back to visit every chance I get. I left Portland to attend school. I completed my degree at The New School, where I also earned a certificate in Art and Drama Therapy.

Do you think you’ll ever move back to Portland?
I can see myself coming back to Portland. My family is there and I really miss them.

I’d love to come back to Portland one day and produce stage plays and host summer creative writing intensives for youth. Giving back to the community I grew up in is important to me, so even if I don’t move back to Portland, I know I will continue to find ways to be involved with the arts and young people there. Right now, I come back at least twice a year and do author visits and writing workshops at local schools.

Getting back to your career, you’re now the author of three books for children: A Place Where Hurricane’s Happen, What Momma Left Me and Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills. How does this feel?
I feel blessed. Very blessed. There are literal moments when I’m walking around New York going about my day and I stop and reflect on the fact that I am living my dream. I know that it’s a privilege that not everyone gets. I hope to be responsible with my success and keep in mind that I stand on many shoulders and that I have such a long way to go to see what the rest of what my journey will be.

Do you think you could have achieved the same level of success in Portland, why or why not?
That’s a difficult question for me to answer. I have always taken myself seriously as a writer. I was producing plays and putting on open mics in Portland since I was in high school [shout out to Jefferson Demos!]. For four years I was the executive director of a small, grass-roots performing arts company called Where I’m From Productions. We put on plays and held writing and theater workshops for youth in North and Northeast Portland. So, I felt very successful as a writer and performer in Portland. I think I was on track to eventually get published.

So, I don’t know.

What I can say about New York is that it has given me more exposure and given me more opportunities to network and meet people in the field. It also feeds my artistry in a way that Portland doesn’t. Having access to such a variety of art and culture has definitely influenced me and helped shape the writer I am today.

Your books tend to be bitter/sweet. I’m thinking of What Momma Left Me. Here you have a middle school girl experience something so horrific yet she finds redemption and joy…can you speak to that?
Yes, my writing does mix the bitter and the sweet. It puts deep sorrow and profound joy right next to each other, because often times, that’s how it is in life. We are experiencing many emotions at once, having good days and bad days in one week. I hope that young people walk away from my books accepting that and feeling like they can handle whatever life throws at them.

In What Momma Left Me, a major theme is domestic violence, but there’s more to the story than that. Serenity, the main character, has her first kiss, gets in trouble in class because she can’t stop laughing, and helps the students in her Sunday School class pull a prank on the teacher. In my writing I hope to have a balance between the good and bad, the hard and soft. That’s the reality of the young people I work with. And instead of writing books for readers to escape reality, I try to write books that help them cope with it, celebrate it, question it, and make peace with it.

Are you currently working on any projects? I have an idea for you. I’d love for you to write a book about the Portland you knew growing up and Portland now…
So interesting that you said that. My next young adult novel, This Side of Home (Bloomsbury, January 2015), is about identical twin sisters growing up in North East Portland. They have seen their gentrified neighborhoods morph right before their eyes. One twin, Nikki, is all for the new boutiques, and restaurants. The other sister, Maya, refuses to patronize any of the shops. When a white family purchases the renovated house across the street, Maya wonders where all the black people have gone. But then, Maya finds herself falling in love with her white neighbor and struggles with not only the change happening in her community and school, but the change happening in her heart.

If you can believe it, I started writing this story in my eleventh grade English class. It wasn’t an assignment; I just noticed the changes happening in Portland and began to write. I didn’t even know the word gentrification then. I remember my teacher, Linda Christensen, encouraging me to keep going. She would have me read excerpts to the class and they gave me feedback and I’d come back the next week with more. (What a great teacher, right? To see potential in me and fan that tiny flame!). Over the years, the story took form as a short story, a one-act play, and now it’s being published as a YA novel. So, even though all my work has been special to me, this project is very dear to me and I’m excited to share it.

What’s something Portland has that NY can not replace?
So many things! I could go on and on, but I’ll just list a few: my family, the Gorge, bungalow houses and their wide porches, Joe Brown’s caramel popcorn.

Read more about Renee at  |  Her books can be purchased at