Throwback Thursday: Renée Watson’s Advice on Writing About Serious Topics

Cynsations is celebrating its 20th anniversary by switching to a quarterly publishing schedule, featuring in-depth interviews and articles. Thank you for your ongoing support and enthusiasm!

Congratulations to Renée Watson on the publication of Summer is Here, illustrated by Bea Jackson (Bloomsbury, May 7, 2024)! From the publisher’s website:

Summer is here!
No dark clouds in the sky,
it’s a perfect day for play.
What joy will summer bring me today?

Summer is finally here, and she’s bringing the most perfect day! From sunup to sundown, there’s so much to do on this lovely summer day. With summer comes fresh fruit, sweet and tangy, jump ropes for leaping and dancing, and friends at the pool swimming and floating. Summer brings family cookouts under shady trees, gardens overflowing, and the familiar song of the ice-cream truck. This beautiful ode to all the season’s sensations follows one girl’s perfect day in an exploration of joy, family, friendship, sunshine, and wonder.

Her stars shimmer like spilled glitter across the sky.
I whisper a wish and say goodbye to the day.
I wish summer would stay.

Take a look back at a guest post Renée wrote for Cynsations in 2011, the year after her picture book A Place Where Hurricanes Happen was published.

Guest Post: Renée Watson on Writing About Serious Topics in Children’s Books

By Renée Watson

Stand up if you like to play outside with your friends.

Stand up if you’ve ever lost something.

Stand up if you’ve ever been to a funeral.

Stand up if you like to cook with your mom or dad.

Stand up if you have ever moved.

Stand up if you like to listen to music.

Stand up if you are proud of where you are from.

This is the activity I do when I start off my author visits for A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, illustrated by Shadra Strickland (Random House, 2010). Before I share the book, I give an opportunity for students to see how they have something in common with the characters, even if they haven’t personally experienced a natural disaster.

People often describe A Place Where Hurricanes Happen as a book about hurricane Katrina. While the book certainly delves into the tragedy of Katrina, and is first and foremost for New Orleans, it is also about celebrating friendship and community and it shows children ways to cope with change and loss.

It is also for children everywhere. Even if children haven’t experienced a natural disaster, many young people have lost a grandparent, or had to move and start a new school. Most children enjoy playing with their friends or cooking with a parent. These stories are universal and children from all walks of life can relate to them.

It is important to me to create books that touch children on many levels and to have a balance of the good and the bad—because, in life, things are usually a combination of both at the very same time.

My advice to writers who desire to tackle social issues in children’s books is to first read everything you can that is similar to what you want to write. What other books tackle social issues? Read the book the first time for pleasure, then a second time to study it and analyze what the writer is doing that makes the story work.

Then, I tell writers to practice writing about the characters, not about the incident. In A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, children are drawn to Keesha who can’t wait to eat the home-cooked meal she made with her mother; they can’t believe how many teddy bears she has in her collection. They laugh at Tommy when he complains about his snoring brother. They understand Michael’s pride when he brags about being the oldest and all the things he gets to do that his younger sister can’t. And they relate to Adrienne who is the leader of group, always looking out for her friends.

Renée with a group of students.

Writing about serious topics doesn’t change the basic rule—make the characters interesting and believable. When you, as the writer, have developed a strong character with a storyline, the tendency to be too preachy fades because your character takes center stage and the social issue becomes secondary.

Following this principal will also deepen your story and help children see that even though horrific things happen, there can still be hope and rebuilding. It shows children that one incident doesn’t have to define them forever.

Cynsational Notes

Renée Watson is a #1 New York Times Bestselling author. Her books have sold over one million copies. Her young adult novel, Piecing Me Together, 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. Many of her books are inspired by her experiences growing up as a Black girl in the Pacific Northwest. Her poetry and fiction center around the experiences of Black girls and explore themes of home, identity, body image, and the intersections of race, class, and gender.

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. One of Renée’s passions is using the arts to help youth cope with trauma and discuss social issues.

Her picture book, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen is based on poetry workshops she facilitated with children in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Renée was a writer-in-residence for over twenty years teaching creative writing and theater in public schools and community centers throughout the nation. She founded I, Too Arts Collective, a nonprofit that was housed in the Harlem brownstone where Langston Hughes lived the last twenty years of his life. The organization hosted poetry workshops for youth and literary events for the community from 2016-2019. Renée is on the Council of Writers for the National Writing Project and is a member of the Academy of American Poets’ Education Advisory Council.

Renée grew up in Portland, Oregon, and splits her time between Portland and New York City.