Renée Watson Believes Self-Love Is a Revolution

This New York Times bestselling author’s latest YA novel is an unapologetic love letter to Black girls

Portrait of Renee Watson.
Renee Watson. Photo: Shawnte Sims

With Black girlhood at the helm, Renée Watson wants to start important conversations. The New York Times bestselling author has written books (one which has been optioned for a movie) about activist girls who raise their voices and take to the streets. But Watson’s latest installment, Love Is a Revolution, is an unapologetic love letter that highlights the quieter voices who show up for themselves and their loved ones in small, but equally important ways. After all, the main character’s grandmother says, “The most radical thing you can do is love yourself and each other.”

In the opening scene of Watson’s latest novel, Nala wants to accomplish three things: Find a new hairstyle; spend more time with her sister-cousin-friend, Imani, and best friend, Sadie; and most importantly, find love. But love is hard, and it requires patience, selflessness, and perseverance. Watson further explores the many themes of radical love by featuring Black teens figuring out themselves and their identities in the world. This realistic fiction is a sustainable ode to community, sisterhood, and self-love.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

ZORA: The reader gets a very intimate view of the main character’s journey to self-love. And because the book is written from a first person point of view, it’s almost as if the reader is also on a journey to self-discovery, too. Why did you choose to write this book (and all of your other works) in the first person?

Renée Watson: First, thank you for asking a craft question; including Black authors in conversations of craft is so necessary. First person is my favorite point of view to write from, especially for young adult novels. There’s an immediacy and an intimacy that immediately connects a reader to the character. Because young people often live in a fast-paced world, first person POV connects with them on a deeper level as opposed to a more removed third person or bird’s-eye view kind of writing.

“Black kids need to see themselves falling in love, having fun, and being a teenager — not always having to raise their voice about something or be teaching a White person how to be an ally.”

This book is a portrait of Black teens having fun while navigating relationships and trying to figure out their place in the world. Why was this important for you to shine a light on this angle?

Sometimes I write about the struggle and the pain. I think those stories need to be told. But I also believe in the stories where we are living our everyday lives. I was editing the final book during the summer in the midst of the global pandemic, racial uprising, and protests. There was a moment when I really considered adding these events to the book, but then I stopped myself. I was like, “No, no, no. This is reality too.” Black kids need to see themselves falling in love, having fun, and being a teenager — not always having to raise their voice about something or be teaching a White person how to be an ally. Keeping it “real” as a realistic fiction writer means telling the truth — and the truth is, there is a thing called Black joy. I want to ensure that our young people have books that display that.

Nala and her family members are big, beautiful Black women. The book’s cover and its characters speak to the power of self-love in a society that can be unforgiving.

Yes. I’m grateful to have a publisher that supports my vision, but I really had to advocate for the book’s cover. If I think about myself and the way that I was raised, I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to like my body until people started telling me that. I looked at magazines and saw that I was pretty much erased from existence. There were also the backhanded compliments like “You’re beautiful… for a big girl.”

Before I even placed pen to paper, I thought about the countless Black girls who actually have their self-esteem intact until they meet a world which keeps shouting to them that they are less than. The media is making efforts, but I’d like to see more representation of everyday Black girls, who are also big, as a main character and not the side character. In my books, I’m trying to push against the traditional rom-com tropes. The big girls get the love they wish for, and their humanity is not centered on trying to lose weight.

You said that sometimes we need to speak the words of others until we find our own. In the book, Nala is clinging on to the lyrics of a fictional singer, Blue. These lyrics actually become Nala’s truth, and that’s how she grows into herself as the story develops. What were your own inspirations that served as a soundtrack to self-love?

I grew up listening to Aretha Franklin and all these women who were very powerful, confident, and strong. They told men what they needed and wanted, and they stood up for themselves. I didn’t know it at that time but those were seeds being planted. Blue’s lyrics are also inspired by poems by Lucille Clifton. While writing, I listened to Koffee, Beyoncé, and Lizzo, and I see the character Blue as a singer who embodies all of these women. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was also on heavy repeat. Lauryn Hill came on the scene during my formative years, and her work made me think about self-love, friendships, and relationships in new ways. In fact, “Tell Him” is an ode to 1 Corinthians 13 — the scripture that embodies the definition of love.

Nikki Giovanni has said that your writing is to Black girls what Toni Morrison’s writing is to Black women. How does this make you feel?

I am so very humbled by these words. I grew up on Nikki’s work — and Toni’s as well — so it is a great honor to know her and to know she loves my work. I hope I continue to live up to her high praise, that I continue to make them proud and do for young Black girls what Nikki and Toni did for me.

What are you hoping readers to get out of Love Is a Revolution?

I hope that younger and adult readers alike walk away from this book understanding that love is a radical act. In a world that is constantly policing the existence of Black girls and women, it is a radical thing to say that I am enough. Be intentional about loving ourselves and each other because we’re all we have. And so we must show up for ourselves so that we can show up for each other.

Introverted ENFJ. Writer. Storyteller. Dreamer. Find her on Instagram @iamtabari.

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