Zibby Owens: Renée Watson is a New York Times best-selling author, educator, and activist. 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. She’s given lots of readings and lectures, places like the UN, the Library of Congress, if you’ve heard of any of those. Her books include young adult novels like This Side of Home, which was nominated for the Best Fiction for Young Adults by the American Library Association, and Watch Us Rise, cowritten with Ellen Hagan. Her picture book, Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills, received several honors including an NAACP Image Award nomination in children’s literature. Her most recent book is called Ways to Make Sunshine. Renée grew up in Portland, Oregon, and now lives in New York City.

Welcome, Renée. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Renée Watson: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I loved your most recent book. I was feeling the pain of the girl who is under the water with her hair getting totally disheveled with Red, her nemesis in the book, and just feeling like I feel like every child has been in a situation where they have to do something they don’t want to do and it goes against everything their family believes in and they believe in and everything to fit in. Anyway, I feel like I’m right in that moment in your book. I just can’t wait to talk to you about it.

Renée: Ryan is the character you’re mentioning. She is trying to figure out, how do I stay a leader no matter where I am? How do I hold onto my values and show up in the way that my parents expect me to show up in the world? Sometimes she gets it right and sometimes not so much. She can be jealous. She’s super competitive. In that scene, she’s really trying to prove that she is Amanda’s best friend. That is what gets her, her competitive nature and her feeling a little insecure about this new girl, Red, coming into the friendship group. She’s like, nope, I got to protect my friend and my spot. You’re not going to take her away from me. I like Ryan as a character. She was fun to write because she’s flawed. She’s not this perfect girl who always makes the right decisions and does everything correctly. She’s figuring it out. She messes up along the way.

Zibby: I love how her name is really — what is it? Lion or leader or something. Every time she goes into a situation, she’s reminded that she was named to be a leader and has to carry that sense of gravitas into everything from the schoolroom to a playdate to whatever.

Renée: Ryan means king.

Zibby: King, sorry. There we go. I got the lion. I got king of the jungle.

Renée: Her parents are always telling her, “Be who we named you to be.” They’re telling her, be a leader. Be thoughtful. Be respectful. Be kind. She’s in the fourth grade, so sometimes it’s really hard to be all of those things. She’s figuring it out.

Zibby: How do you do this? You’ve written so many books at this point including a Newbery Award-winning novel and middle grade. You’re doing the Oprah Winfrey New Leaders, which is so amazing.

Renée: I’m really excited about that.

Zibby: Let me take this one at a time. I’m rambling here. I wanted to know how you came up with the idea for this, your most recent book. Then I wanted to talk about the Oprah Winfrey book and all of the other amazing things you do. This book we were just talking about with Ryan and everything, how did you come up with this plot? How do you come up all your plots, really?

Renée: Ways to Make Sunshine is the book that just came out in April. I have been writing books that really tackle social issues and really think about young girls finding their voices to speak out against injustice or speak out and say who they are and name their own identities. I needed to, as a writer, do something that wasn’t as serious or as social justice warrior girl. I was thinking of, how can I explore just a girl who is having fun in her neighborhood, riding her bike, racing the boys, figuring out that she is strong and how she can be brave and what her talents are? I just wanted to play around with black joy and the fun part of being a child and focus on that. I was thinking about, how could this take shape? What’s the plot? I really loved the Ramona series growing up. I’ve read all of Beverly Clearly’s books. Beverly Clearly, she’s from Oregon. Ramona lived in Portland. I wanted to write a story in that vein about a black girl who lives in Portland and is rambunctious and makes up concoctions in the kitchen and experiments when she’s cooking with her mom.

It was kind of an ode to Ramona, an ode to Beverly Clearly. I remember what it felt like to see streets that I recognized on the page in a book. It was so cool to me as a kid to be like, I know that park. I know that street. My aunt lived near Klickitat Street. I always would joke that Ramona was my aunt’s friend. Anyway, I just wanted to give that to black kids in Portland and then kids and all children to have a book that has some joy in it. It just so happened to come out at a time when I think we need a little bit of sunshine and a little bit of joy in our lives. I’ve been having conversations with young people about that. How do you make sunshine? How do you use Ryan as kind of an example? Things are not the way we want them to be right now. There is some sadness. There’s some very real pain happening, but where is the good? How can we do good and not just complain about what’s going on? That’s Ways to Make Sunshine. I’m super excited that it’s out in the world. It’s the first book of a series, so I’m also working on book two right now.

Zibby: Awesome. I did not know that Klickitat Street or whatever it was, I did not know that was a real place until you said that right now. I have read all those books. Obviously, I grew up with them all, Ramona and Beezus and all the rest. I started reading them to my kids. Although, for whatever reason they weren’t as into them as I was. I was like, aren’t these amazing? They’re like, whatever. I haven’t read them yours yet. I kept those for myself. I just didn’t even know that was a real place, so thank you for that fun fact.

I feel like Ryan also, her family’s going through so many transitions. You have her family moving in the very beginning. Her father has been working for the post office. Then he has to leave that job and get a night job in a new area. They have to make it seem like a palatable, fun move, as parents try to do about everything for their kids. Then really, they get there and Ryan’s like, what is this house? I don’t think so. Then you have her sort of get into it and pull out the stepstool that she finds and realize, you know what, in any house I can be whoever I am. It’s not about where I live. It’s about my family. That’s so true. I feel like right now everybody feels so displaced. Their regular lives are completely disrupted like Ryan’s was. You have to figure out what’s important, which is really family and who you are. I feel it’s such a timely message.

Renée: Thank you. Change is really hard. It’s hard for adults, so let alone a young person who doesn’t have a lot of power to make decisions or really do the things that they might want to do. I wanted to think about, how does a young person deal with a changing world and things that are out of their control? Like you mentioned, her father loses a job. They have to downsize. They lose one of their cars. It changes the family dynamic. He’s the one who normally takes her to school. That can’t happen anymore, all these things that from a child’s perspective feels so big and so life changing. Sometimes adults, rightfully so, we have to think of the big picture, bills and all the other kinds of things that parents are thinking about. I feel like it’s my responsibility as a writer who writes books for young people to put them at the center and think about their feelings and emotions while the adults are having to deal with the big-picture stuff. For a little girl having to move, she’s worried about this new creepy room that she’s never slept in. Does she need a nightlight or not? Worried about, is she going to still be able to be as close to her friends as she used to be? That’s a big deal when you’re in the fourth grade, friendship dynamics and all of that. The book is a lot about change and coping with change.

Zibby: When she found the box that the previous tenet in the house had up on the shelf, I was like, don’t open it. No, don’t open it. But she wasn’t listening to me. So why do this? Why do this gift to middle-grade readers? Why you? Why have you dedicated your life to this? Tell me about that.

Renée: I’ve just always loved words. I’ve always loved story. When I was a young person, I always say I found some of my — my best friends were in books. I read Judy Blume books, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I read a lot of poetry and felt very seen and validated in the lines of poems. For me, I want young people to feel seen and validated when they’re reading my work. I want them to be able to relate to characters. We were talking a moment ago about, adults are having very adult conversations, but young people need to be having those conversations too, just on a kid level. There’s so much happening in the world right now. I want my books to help young people process what is going on. Some of my other books really explicitly deal with race and class and the intersections of race, class, and gender. For a teenager who is definitely seeing what’s happening and wants to talk about it and wants to get involved, not just talk about it, but do something, I see literature as a way, as one of the ways that we can engage young people in conversations. It’s a safe space because you can talk about the characters. You don’t have to reveal your stuff yet. I’ve dedicated my life to that because I had that as a child. I had teachers, and of course my mother, who gave me books and gave me journals and told me to write my story and always were asking me, what do you have to say? What do you think about what’s going on? I don’t know any other way to be. I feel like it just kind of feels like a calling, like a second nature to me to process things through art and art making. For me, my art form is the written word.

Zibby: I love how on Instagram you posted when you were on the best-seller list on Mother’s Day, how you said something to your mom. All those books she gave you, and could you two have imagined that after all that, look where you would be on Mother’s Day? That’s so amazing.

Renée: I couldn’t have planned that better, to have it come out on Mother’s Day and be in the paper. The beautiful review was so —

Zibby: — Oh, that’s what it was. Sorry, yes.

Renée: Such a thoughtful review and so thorough. I loved that. I was sharing that my mother read — well, I read to her while she was cooking or doing the busy things that she needed to get done. I was always like, “I have a new story that I wrote. Can I read it to you? I have a poem that I wrote. Can I read it to you?” We’d be in the car. I’m in the backseat. “Can I read?” She’s going to turn down the music. “Okay, Renée.” I’m sure my siblings were so annoyed and tired of me with my stories and wanting them to be characters. I would also put on plays and act out some of the things that I wrote. She always fanned the flame and never told me, “Enough with your stories. Enough with your poems.” She encouraged me. I think that that — well, I know that that’s a big part of why I’m a writer is because — I didn’t see writers who looked like me, but I knew that I could be one because my mother encouraged me and believed in me. That’s another reason why I write. I go to schools a lot. I do a ton of school visits and try to meet as many young people as I can so that they can see, one, that writers are alive and living. A lot of times in schools we study dead poets and writers, so it’s nice for them to see, this person is a contemporary author making a living off of their words, and if they want to do that, that they could do that too.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Maybe you’ll be doing a lot more virtual school visits in the fall.

Renée: I’m happy to.

Zibby: I’m currently in a panic about what all my kids are doing for the fall. Who knows what’s happening? We’ll see.

Renée: I know.

Zibby: Let’s go back to — it’s so funny because I follow Jill Santopolo who was on my podcast for her books. Then she posted about how she was so excited to announce this whole series. Then I’m scrolling, and you wrote one of those books. Explain the whole story. I feel like I’m getting all my facts and words mixed up today, so you say exactly what the series is and how you got involved in it.

Renée: Chelsea Clinton, she wrote a picture book called She Persisted. In that picture book, it features very short bios of women who persisted and overcame and fought for justice or used their voices or their talents to be great citizens of our world. It’s a beautiful picture book. Now they have taken those women and they want to have chapter books for a little older audience. They reached out to twelve women to write these twelve stories. I am writing Oprah’s biography. All of the series, the first book comes out in January of 2021. Then each month of the year, a new book will be out. Mine does not come out until December. It’s the last one of the series.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Renée: It’s a while to wait, but there is such an amazing lineup of the women who we are writing about and also the authors that Chelsea reached out to and selected. I’m very honored to be a part of the project. I’m writing alongside some of my friends, writers that I admire and respect. It really does feel like a sisterhood in this very real way. Sometimes projects can be manipulated and made and marketed in a way, but this is a very authentic — we are in it together in real life. I know Kekla. I know Meg Medina. I know these authors. We are having conversations about what it means to write for young girls, what it means to write a girl character and want everyone to read it, not just girls, that conversation of, how do we teach our boys to respect women and respect women’s voices? It feels really great to be a part of the project. I’m super excited about it. Jill is great. I’ve worked with her and known her just by friendship. She’s a wonderful person. It’s been a great project to be a part of. I’m glad the news is out. When these things happen, it’s hush-hush for a while. It was nice to finally share that this is in the works.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Actually, I have a two-book deal with Penguin Random Books for children’s books.

Renée: That’s awesome.

Zibby: Thanks. I couldn’t talk about it for almost seven months. I was dying to say something. I finally could. It takes just so long. I know what you mean. Yours is way bigger news. Mine are these tiny little books.

Renée: Anything getting published is big news, so congratulations.

Zibby: Thank you. I saw Jill when I was in there. She was like, “Try to get a bigger book deal. Try a three-book deal, a four-book deal.” I was like, yeah, however many. Let’s keep adding them on. Anyway, too funny. So tell me a little about your writing process. When you get an idea for a book and everything and sit down, where do you like to write? How long does each book take? The whole thing.

Renée: I say this often. I do a lot of writing in my head. I’m a thinker first. I go on walks and I’m just thinking about the character, who they are, what they’re afraid. What do they like? What do they want? What’s in the way of them getting what they want? I’m kind of just thinking about them before I start writing. I think that that’s important. I listen. I just pay attention to the world around me. I’m constantly taking in what’s happening so that when I sit down, I have something to say and I’m not thinking in that moment of trying to think of an idea. I already have so much in my head. I handwrite first. I’m just old-school in that way. There’s something about pen to paper that makes me more intimate with my character in the beginning and really get me — I usually write books in first person, so it’s really helped me get in their head a little bit more. Then once I feel like I have, okay, something’s here, and I know who this character is, then I’ll start typing it out. I don’t handwrite the whole novel. I’ll work on it and get it to about sixty pages. Then I print it out, read it. Then I’m like, okay, this is something. What needs to happen next? What needs to happen before these sixty pages?

That’s when I start crafting out the fuller story. I’m messy when I write. I’ll write a scene and there will be parts in it that’s in parentheses, something needs to happen here, or conversation about whatever, and then I’ll keep going, just so that I can get it out. Then when I have a full story, I can go back and really layer it and fine-tune it and be a writer. I feel like in the beginning, I’m more of a storyteller. I’m just getting the story out and I’m not paying attention to craft as much. As I draft, then I really, really hone in on, how do I want to tell this story? What’s the best beginning first paragraph? and all of that kind of stuff. At this point in my career, I have to just write anywhere. I’ve learned how to write in airports and hotels and all kinds of noisy places. My preference is a coffee shop or my home office. I have my favorite coffee places. I don’t even drink coffee. I’m a tea person. I have my places that I love to go in different cities. I usually have a playlist that coincides with the novel in some way, like a soundtrack, so that I’m in that world. I put my headphones on and I just work for a few hours. There’s something about being out where there are people but also being by yourself. Writing is so isolating anyway, and so I like to be out and about because I could really just stay in all day for weeks and weeks and weeks if I’m working on a project. For me, that’s not healthy. I need to be around people, but I’m in my own world with my headphones. I kind of get the best of both worlds of being the introvert and having to write, but also being out and seeing people.

Zibby: Here’s my issue with writing at bookstores. I have tried doing this in the past. If I’m going to go set up shop at Pain Quotidien near the kids’ school or something like that, then what happens when you have to get up and go to the bathroom? I never know what to do with all my stuff. Do I have to pack up every time? Do I ask somebody to watch my stuff? Then I’m like, forget it, I’m just going to work at home.

Renée: It depends. I definitely have some places that I feel like are writer friendly. There’s kind of a code where we’re all working, so you give the, “Do you mind?” Then I’m going to go, and then you’re next, trade off kind of thing. Then, yeah, if I don’t know the place, I will pack up my stuff. Usually, I don’t have a lot. I really just have my laptop and my phone out on the table. It’s easier to bring that with me. When I’m revising — so that’s writing. I write out in public. I create out in public. When I am in the throes of revising and plot and storyboarding and I have Post-it Notes on the wall of all the scenes, I have to be at home. Like you said, it’s way too much stuff to try to take and then take over a whole table in a public space. I’m in New York, so there are not that many public spaces that actually have that kind of space. When I have all my writerly things out, I tend to write home in my office.

Zibby: I really love how you just said a minute ago how part of it is storytelling, but that’s separate from the writing. It’s like a building a house. First, you’re building the structure. Then the painters come in. It’s all the different stages. To be a truly gifted author, you have to have both of those abilities. You can’t just be a great writer but not know how to tell a good story or vice versa.

Renée: Work hand in hand, for sure. I think a lot about the craft of writing. The poet in me — I first, as a child, wrote a lot of poetry, studied a lot of poetry. Then I taught it as a teaching artist in many schools. I think a lot about word choice and sentence structure, and when do you break a sentence or the white space on a page, and how that conveys emotions and is also telling your reader something, not just words. I dig into that kind of stuff when I’m later on in the draft and then really have the full story. In the beginning, I’m not necessarily thinking about those things. I’ll go back through and be like, oh, you need to rework this whole paragraph. What is happening is fine, but let’s say that in a different way or let it unfold differently. I try to take time with the writing. I love that part of it, actually. A lot of people don’t like to revise, but I do enjoy going back and revisiting and revisioning the story.

Zibby: I love that. Revisioning, that’s awesome. It makes it much more fun than revising. It makes it sound like an amazing, creative endeavor versus a slog through sentences and red marks.

Renée: There are definitely some moments where I’m calling friends, “Why did I say I could do this? This is not going anywhere. What do I do?” For sure. It’s not all fun, but it’s a good challenge to have.

Zibby: You have so much coming up. You have the Oprah Winfrey book for She Persisted. You’re working already on the rest of this series. Are you making any of these a movie? You must be. This must be a whole big thing.

Renée: I’d love to. There’s nothing I can share right now, but I’m definitely wanting some of my books to be adapted. I’m not doing this right now, but I would love to write not a book that’s being adapted, but just write a movie screenplay or a TV series. I always say, I’m a writer; right now, I’m writing a lot of children’s books. I want to do adult fiction. I want to have a poetry collection. We’ll see what happens in the years to come.

Zibby: These coffee shops have to open soon. There is too much for you to do.

Renée: I know. It’s been so interesting working in my space constantly now as a person who does go out a lot to create. In the beginning, it was really hard for so many reasons. It felt like the world had been turned upside down. Emotionally, it was just hard to process what was happening and also be on deadline for books and have to get things done and then be in a space that I really hadn’t been in in a while creating. I had just come back from — 2019 was a lot of touring and traveling for me, so I hadn’t actually been home in a while. It was so much that I had to just take a moment. Those first few weeks of quarantine were really rough. Nothing got done. That’s okay too. I say that to writers all the time. Sometimes, you can’t. That’s okay. I still was paying attention. I feel like whatever was happening emotionally for me will show up in the work, in future works. It’s also okay to just sit down and not feel like you have to create and push yourself to do, do, do. While this has been really hard, then of course, all the protests and the resurgence of us having a national conversation about black lives and all of that, it’s just been a lot to be a part of and then also be creating during this time. I’ve been really leaning into poets and activists who came before me who also lived through really, really hard times and still found a way to write and create and actually used all of that anger, frustration, fear, sadness to push them to write. Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, these giants who used their pen in moments of unrest, that’s been encouraging me that I can do this. There’s so many people who have already done this and left me great examples. I’ve been really, really reminding myself of that.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I love that perspective. That was also great advice for aspiring authors, but I would like a little more. What else would you say to an aspiring author aside from that the time is not always right and you shouldn’t feel like you have to do, do, do all the time? Sometimes you just collect the information. You’re not outputting it. It’s more like the input stage. What else would you say to an aspiring author?

Renée: There’s a couple of things I think that are important. Obviously, reading is super important. Whatever genre you’re trying to write in, read a lot in that genre. Also, if you find something that you really, really love, then read that again. The first time you’re taking in a movie or a play or a book, there’s so many things you’re missing. If you love a book, I encourage people to go right back to the first page and then study that book and figure out, what is this writer doing technically that is making me love this so much? Why did I keep turning the page? Why was I so engaged with these characters? Then figure out how to do that in your own work. What can you learn from these writers? Of course, you can take classes. That’s great and all that, but there’s something about understanding what makes you like something. How do you do that in your work? What are your cornerstones as a writer? Figure out, what is your voice? How do you want to get your voice out there?

Then my other advice is not writerly, but it’s find your people. I really think, like I was saying, writing is isolating. It is really hard. There are a lot of no’s. There’s a lot of wait, like you just said. There’s, great, we have this big news. Oh, you can’t say anything for a while. Or you’re going to get published, but not for — my first book, I signed the contract in 2007. It was a picture book. It didn’t come out until 2010. There’s a lot of hurry up and wait in this industry. You’re going to need some people who, even if they’re not writers, but who are going to encourage you and who are going to push you and who are going to understand that you cannot maybe do the weekend brunch meetup because you’re working on your novel or whatever. If it weren’t for my friends and the people who really love me and are going to tell me that I could do this, I don’t think that I would be writing. I needed to lean on people. I’m so grateful that I had them. It doesn’t need to be a whole lot of people, but I think you need one or two who are going to really have your back and support you and push you not let you give up on yourself.

Zibby: That is excellent life advice for anything, any profession. Anything you’re trying to do in the world, I think that is spot on. Perfect. Renée, thank you so much. This has been so nice. I’m sorry, I felt like I was a bit scattered this morning with not retrieving the right names and information. I’m sorry for that. I really enjoyed your book. I’m such a fan of yours. I can’t wait to now follow and see all the amazing things you’re going to do.

Renée: Thank you. It was really nice to meet you. Thanks for having me. Congratulations again on your books.

Zibby: Thank you. Maybe they’ll come out in like 2026. Who knows? Thanks so much, Renée.

Renée: Thanks. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.