review: Watch Us Rise


title: Watch Us Rise
author: Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan
date: Bloomsbury; 12 February 2019
YA fiction
This review is based on an advance copy.

Watch Us Rise.

Watson and Hagan’s collaborative fiction, Watch Us Rise, was a book I easily find to be centered in black girl literacies. The powerful statement that entitles the book tells me that this story recognizes the ways black girls are rendered invisible but that this story will be told from a point of visibility. The title is a simple, declarative statement that requests nothing.

Watch Us Rise is narrated by Chelsea and Jasmine with each character speaking in first person. They, along with close friends Isaac, James and Nadia are entering their junior year at Amsterdam Heights Collaborative Community School. Jasmine is a black girl whose passion is acting. She is made to feel invisible because of her weight, not only by advertisements, but also by classmates, strangers on the bus and even by her friends.

[Chelsea speaking]“Catch me up, Jasmine, because I have no idea what the problem is. I mean, I spent all last week helping Isaac with the design, and then the whole freakin’ morning going downtown to pick these up, and now you’re annoyed—so what’s the big deal?”

[Jasmine responding] “The big deal is that I can’t wear any of them, Chelsea.”

I looked down at the shirts and see that Jasmine has laid out all the tags on the women’s sizes. “You didn’t even think about me, which means you didn’t consider anyone who doesn’t fit into the standard sizes, which is messed up.” She whispers that last part so Leidy doesn’t hear us arguing.

“Oh crap,” I say, gathering them up to look at anything other than your favorite magazines, you’d know there’s a whole market for curve models, and women and girls who occupy space with their bodies in different ways.”

I know, I know, I just—“ (pp. 211-212)

Jasmine’s father, who has been a mainstay in her and her friend’s lives has terminal cancer. He encourages his daughter and her friends to explore their community, to seek out its art and its history. In fact, all of the characters have good relationships with their parents but, the parents have small roles in this story. We’re watching the girls rise. These young people are truly their parent’s children, but they are rising by taking the fight for equity and civil rights to the next level, one that they’re creating and defining. Chelsea, her mother and grandmother confront the generational differences of feminism.

“But Grandma, you wanted to be a teacher, right?”

My mom glares at me. Not tonight she mouths in my direction. That’s the main issue with me and my mom. It’s never the right time with her. She is always the cool and calm one, the woman who lets everyone tell her how to feel and never raises her voice for anything, so sometimes I feel like I need to be that voice for her—whether she likes it or not.

“Well, of course, but I taught your mother and your aunt and that was enough for me. You know, you young girls, you think you can do everything, but you can’t. Something is always sacrificed. Something has to give, and usually it’s the marriage that suffers.” (p, 249-250)

Isaac, of  Puerto Rican descent, is a visual artist and Jasmine’s love interest. It seems odd that a feminist story would offer a love interest, doesn’t it? It doesn’t have to be, though. Romantic situations in this book are every bit as complicated as in real life. Isaac is right there on the front lines of feminism with his friends. His presence, along with that of most (not all!) of the male characters demonstrates that men can and do join in the fight against patriarchy, that women are not alone in the fight for liberation.

Chelsea, poet, is a feminist who believes that looks matter. Oh, sure she recognizes that “labeling pants with the word ‘skinny’ is completely superficial and against everything I stand for” (p. 15), but why should she be perfect just because she’s a character in a book? Even more to the point, why shouldn’t a feminist care about how she looks?

Nadia, who we hear the least from, is of mixed Japanese/Lebanese heritage. Her mom is a celebrity stylist and Nadia has inherited her fashion skills. Nadia is a singer and DJ.

Chelsea and Jasmine decide that the after school clubs they belong to are diminishing their existence as women, so they decide to create their own club. The group is eventually shut down by the male principal. While their parents are quite supportive of the girls, they’re steeped in yesterday’s feminism, as are the teachers at the school. The girls must build their own literacies to liberate themselves. Their thoughts and beliefs are articulated through poetry and blog posts that are presented as original to that character. The girls work to have their club re-instated but along the way they realize how much they need to learn. Chelsea and Jasmine feel like real teen girls burning in their own passion 🔥, but so unaware of how much they have to learn. They’re positioned as well informed young women who are becoming more aware of their power, who are learning and who are growing.

Grown Up
No frilly dresses
or shoes that pinch. No candy,
lemonade, cartoons.
See me grown –my own
attitudes, opinions, thoughts
all mine, don’t disturb
who you think I am
the woman I am becoming
I’m already her.
Yes, adult enough
running up against 18
won’t you see the who
me, a history
I’m crafting in front of you.
Writing down my dreams.
A may to lead you,
directions for who I am
free out in the world.
(pp 190-91)

The girls confront a myriad of issues from harassment and fat shaming to sexism in the tech field and in the media. Watson and Hagan do more to open the doors for conversation than to perpetuate standard diatribes. When Chelsea’s teacher, Ms. Lucas, tells her that she needs to get home and start dinner, Chelsea lends a typical feminist retort.

“See, Ms. Lucas, there you go, falling into gender stereotypes. Why is it that you have to be the one to cook dinner for your husband? You have to rage again that kind of stuff,” I say jokingly, but also kind of serious.

“Chelsea, I love to cook, so that’s why I make dinner. And, for a husband, I’m married to a woman, so that’s not an issue for me.” She smiles at both of us. “I think you still have some things to learn about women’s rights, huh?” (p 94)

Throughout the book, the girls struggle for visibility. The most immediate sources for their oppression stem from classmates and from their school. Amsterdam Heights Collaborative Community School is a school established on the principle of social justice. However, many of their teachers insist on employing twentieth century teaching practices that assign white-authored classics. Students are required to belong to after school groups, but the groups aren’t expected to engage in activism. The structure of the school provides a well-defined microcosm of the larger society that the girls must navigate. However, they choose the more difficult path to revolutionize rather than to stay the course.

The true strength of the book is buried in the lead. These girls who are invisible to most of society begin this story with robust, clear voices; they are already more than enough. And, from that position, they rise.

I recommend this book for high school and public library collections.

Ellen Hagan is an artist, educator and poet. Hagan co-leads the Alice Hoffman Young Writer’s Retreat at Adelphi Univer­sity and is Poetry Chair of the DreamYard Project. She is a is a member of the Affrilachian Poets and Conjure Women, and cofounder of the girlstory collective.

Renée Watson is the founder and executive director of the I, Too Arts Collective. She is probably best known for Piecing Me Together, a 2018 Newbery Honor Book and Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner. Her other books include What Mama Left Me (Bloomsbury), Betty Before X co-authored with Ilyasah Shabazz (FSG), This Side of Home (Bloomsbury), and Harlem’s Little Blackbird The Story of Florence Mills (Random House).