Award-winning writer Renée Watson visited Fresno State on Monday in honor of being named the new artist-in-residence for the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at the Henry Madden Library.
Watson, who is also a performer and educator, has written several books, including her latest young adult novel, “Piecing Me Together,” which won the 2018 Coretta Scott King and Newbery Honor awards.
“One of the best parts of being a writer and having books out in the world is getting to talk to people about the books and talk about the work,” Watson said.
The welcoming reception took place at the University Dining Hall and was co-sponsored by the Cross Cultural and Gender Center, African-American Programs and Services and the Black Faculty and Staff Association.
As the fellowship recipient, Watson will work in English, education and women’s studies classes to connect with students about the importance of children’s literature. She will also receive a $10,000 stipend from an anonymous donor.
Watson said she knew she would pursue writing when she wrote a 21-page story at 7 years of age. Much of her writing is centered around her experiences growing up in Portland, Oregon. She said that she writes about life events that she wasn’t able to talk about or process as a child.
“A lot of the work that I do is kind of going back and righting some wrongs and rethinking a lot of things that happened in my childhood and also celebrating home,” she said.
Watson noted the importance of telling your own story. She said that she tries to envelope the honesty of the painful and joyful moments in her own writing.
“I try to put both of those things up against each other and have the bitter and the sweet happening in one poem, in one novel, so then people see that it’s OK to critique the places that we love,” Watson said.
During the reception, Watson read a few of her poems, including “Where I’m From,” “Resurrection” and “Black Like Me.” She also read excerpts from her books “What Momma Left Me” and “Piecing Me Together.”
Though her work is based in fiction, Watson said that she is inspired by people she has met over time and the things she has seen and experienced herself. She said that she feels a responsibility to tell the truth in writing about the neighborhoods she grew up in past the stereotypical tragic portrayals.
“I had to come to this place where I could be proud of who I was regardless of who I was around, and not shun away from my blackness, my identity and just accept who I was,” she said.
For Takkara Brunson, an assistant professor in the Africana studies program, Watson’s work correlated to her own interest in children’s literature with historical themes.
“It was really amazing to hear her poetry [and] her experiences integrating [into] a predominately white Portland-area school,” Brunson said.
Brunson said she also liked how Watson presents black girlhood in a nuanced way. Her writing says a lot about African-American culture that youth can relate to, she said.
“I think, more broadly, they speak to a range of themes relating to coming-of-age and figuring out your place in society and how you might go about navigating that,” Brunson said.
Also in attendance was a group of female students from Wawona Middle School who came to Watson’s presentation for a class field trip.
Sanai Jones said she was inspired as a black girl because Watson went through a racial struggle her generation has been lucky to avoid.
The students said they related to Watson’s work, and Nakiyaah Easter said she left with a positive message in mind – “It is great being a black female.”