Keeping It Real: Writing Realistic Fiction for Teens
“Is this part about me?” one of my former students asked. She had just finished reading Piecing Me Together and had the book earmarked with post-it notes. I had been a writer-in-residence at her school the previous year and now I was back for an author visit. Before I even looked at the passage she was referring to, I smiled and told her, “No.” “Are you sure?” a classmate chimed in. “I swear this sounds like our school.” I told them I was sure because the book was written before I even met them.
I don’t think they believed me.
It was the biggest compliment a reader could give me. What they were telling me is that they saw themselves in Jade. They’d met people like Maxine and Sam. They knew mothers who were economically poor and hardworking. They knew what it was to be stereotyped, misunderstood. They had seen too many names of black boys and girls next to a hashtag. They were coming into their own realizations that they are whole beings—that their race, class, and gender were intertwined and that sometimes they had privilege and other times they did not.
As a writer of realistic fiction, I believe it is my responsibility to include what is happening in the world on the pages in my books. I don’t write for young people to escape reality. I write to help them cope with it. I hope my books provide a space for readers to grapple with social issues, empathize with characters who may be different from them, and validate their experiences.
When I was a teen growing up in Portland, Oregon, I didn’t have the language to name some of the things that were happening around me. Adults weren’t asking my friends or me how we felt about the Ethiopian man who was beaten to death by skinheads with a baseball bat, no one challenged the stereotypes my seventh-grade science teacher had about girls who looked like me, who lived in neighborhoods that were labeled “at-risk.” And so I carried a lot of questions and self-doubt: Was anyone else seeing this? Did anyone else need to talk about it?
I believe realistic fiction can bare witness to the lived experiences of our young people. Books can be a space for children to be validated, to be seen. They can support educators and parents who want to have difficult conversations with youth.
This isn’t to say that realistic fiction should only be about painful or serious topics. I believe, like in real life, stories should be balanced with moments of sorrow and joy, struggle and celebration. That’s just good writing, yes. But it is especially important for me to do this because I want readers to understand that life is both bitter and sweet at the same time and that they can have the capacity to hold both truths. I want them to have examples of teenagers who stand up for what they believe, who are flawed but willing to ask for forgiveness, willing to try to be better.
As a young reader, I was drawn to poets and writers who resisted, who asked our country to live up to its promise, who celebrated unsung heroes, and humanized people from places that are often misunderstood and underrepresented. Writers like Sherman Alexie, Sandra Cisneros, and Langston Hughes are masterful at capturing the humor and sorrow of everyday life. The way their prose and poems are never about an issue, per se, but rather a character who is living in a complicated world and is being affected by that world.
James Baldwin wrote, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. [Books] taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
Keeping it real—writing books that mirror what is happening in our world—is my way of trying to connect myself and my readers to all the people who are alive, or who have ever been alive. It is a way of saying to a reader, Yes, I see it too. I see you.
Renée Watson (@reneewauthor) is an author and educator. Her books include Piecing Me Together, This Side of Home, and Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills. She teaches Writing For Children for the Solstice MFA writing program at Pine Manor College. She has given readings and lectures on the role of art in social justice at many renowned places including the United Nations headquarters and the Library of Congress. To learn more about Renée and her books visit her at www.reneewatson.net or follow her on Twitter @reneewauthor.
Giveaway Information (from Stacey):
- This giveaway is for a copy of Piecing Me Together. Many thanks to Bloomsbury for donating a copy for one reader.
- For a chance to win this copy of Piecing Me Together, please leave a comment about this post by Wednesday, May 31st at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, June 1st.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Bloomsbury Children’s will ship your book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
- If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – PIECING ME TOGETHER. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.