Truth is, they wanted to spend more time together. Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan had been friends for nearly a decade when they agreed that co-writing a book would be a good way to make that happen. Though they’d taught side by side at DreamYard, a community arts organization in the Bronx, each had become immersed in her own work. Watson penned several highly acclaimed picture, middle-grade, and YA books, including the Newbery Honor– and Coretta Scott King Award–winning novel Piecing Me Together (2017). Hagan had published two volumes of poetry and contributed to anthologies, including She Walks in Beauty (2014), edited by Caroline Kennedy. But once the two sat down and started brainstorming ideas on their potential co-write, there was no turning back.
“We're like-minded, and I knew that we could create something together that would matter to both of us and hopefully to our readers,” says Watson. “I've had the most fun writing this with Ellen. I don't normally say writing is fun—it's really hard for me and very solitary. But to have someone in the room with you to connect with and bounce ideas off of was really nice.”
The result of their collaboration is the Kirkus-starred YA novel Watch Us Rise, a story about how two high school students in New York—Jasmine and Chelsea—use their creative gifts, voices, and close friendship to confront inequality and injustice. Though the characters they penned were not exactly autobiographical, Watson and Hagan both brought experiences to the table that set the fictional story against a backdrop of organic authenticity.
“I got my MFA in New York,” says Hagan. “I’ve worked with organizations like Community Word Project and DreamYard, which are nonprofit, arts-based, social justice organizations that create cohorts of artists that talk back to the world. I'm always trying to figure out what that looks like with the young people I teach.”
“I grew up with teachers who were asking us to respond to the world through art,” adds Watson. “We were writing poems and monologues thinking about race, gender, class, and the intersection of those things. On a bigger level, as a kid, I was already being groomed to be who I am now. So it was very natural for me to help young people cope with what's happening in their world through the arts.”
The teen protagonists in the book narrate the story in alternating chapters. Watson wrote Jasmine and Hagan wrote Chelsea as they sat back to back in Hagan’s New York apartment, typing away on their computers. During breaks they’d read chapters and offer feedback to one another. As one might imagine, their real-life friendship crept onto the page.
“I think that one of the things we wanted to do in this book was show this black girl and this white girl being very much friends and being in it together,” says Watson, “but also having those bumps where something happens. And instead of them not expressing how they feel, they're able to talk about it and move past it. I think we could all learn from Jasmine and Chelsea in that regard.”
Casting a vision of what strong friendships look like was a primary aim for both authors. But they also hope that the book inspires more than just teenagers.
“I think we were both trying to write not only what is, [but] what can be,” says Watson, “so educators can see what it looks like to create space in their schools for young people to share their voices.”
Laura Jenkins is a writer and photojournalist who lives in the Texas Hill Country.