Thursday, January 27, 2011

Guest Post: Renée Watson on Writing About Serious Topics in Children’s Books

By Renée Watson

Stand up if you like to play outside with your friends.

Stand up if you’ve ever lost something.


Stand up if you’ve ever been to a funeral.


Stand up if you like to cook with your mom or dad.


Stand up if you have ever moved.


Stand up if you like to listen to music.


Stand up if you are proud of where you are from.


This is the activity I do when I start off my author visits for A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, illustrated by Shadra Strickland (Random House, 2010). Before I share the book, I give an opportunity for students to see how they have something in common with the characters, even if they haven’t personally experienced a natural disaster.

People often describe A Place Where Hurricanes Happen as a book about hurricane Katrina. While the book certainly delves into the tragedy of Katrina, and is first and foremost for New Orleans, it is also about celebrating friendship and community and it shows children ways to cope with change and loss.

It is also for children everywhere. Even if children haven’t experienced a natural disaster, many young people have lost a grandparent, or had to move and start a new school. Most children enjoy playing with their friends or cooking with a parent. These stories are universal and children from all walks of life can relate to them.

It is important to me to create books that touch children on many levels and to have a balance of the good and the bad—because, in life, things are usually a combination of both at the very same time.

My advice to writers who desire to tackle social issues in children’s books is to first read everything you can that is similar to what you want to write. What other books tackle social issues? Read the book the first time for pleasure, then a second time to study it and analyze what the writer is doing that makes the story work.

Then, I tell writers to practice writing about the characters, not about the incident. In A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, children are drawn to Keesha who can’t wait to eat the home-cooked meal she made with her mother; they can’t believe how many teddy bears she has in her collection. They laugh at Tommy when he complains about his snoring brother. They understand Michael’s pride when he brags about being the oldest and all the things he gets to do that his younger sister can’t. And they relate to Adrienne who is the leader of group, always looking out for her friends.

Writing about serious topics doesn’t change the basic rule—make the characters interesting and believable. When you, as the writer, have developed a strong character with a storyline, the tendency to be too preachy fades because your character takes center stage and the social issue becomes secondary.


Following this principal will also deepen your story and help children see that even though horrific things happen, there can still be hope and rebuilding. It shows children that one incident doesn’t have to define them forever.

Cynsational Notes

From the promotional copy of What Momma Left Me:

How is it that unsavory raw ingredients come together to form a delicious cake? What is it about life that when you take all the hard stuff and rough stuff and add in a lot of love, you still just might have a wonderful life?

For Serenity, these questions rise up early when her father kills her mother, and leaves her and her brother Danny to live with their kind but strict grandparents. Despite the difficulties of a new school, a new church, and a new neighborhood, Serenity gains strength from the family around her, the new friends she finds, and her own careful optimism.

Debut author Renée Watson's talent shines in this powerful and ultimately uplifting novel.

Author Bio

Renée Watson is the author of the children’s picture book, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen (Random House, 2010), which was featured on "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams." [See inspiring video of Renee on TV.]

Her middle grade novel, What Momma Left Me (Bloomsbury, 2010) debuted as the New Voice for 2010 in middle grade fiction by The Independent Children's Booksellers Association.

Renée performed her one woman show, "Roses are Red, Women are Blue,” at New York City's Lincoln Center at a showcase for emerging artists. Her poetry and articles have been published in Rethinking Schools, Theatre of the Mind and With Hearts Ablaze.

When Renée is not writing and performing, she is teaching. Renée has worked in public schools and community organizations as an artist in residence for several years, teaching poetry, fiction, and theater in Oregon, Louisiana, and New York City. She also facilitates professional development workshops for teachers and artists.

One of Renée’s passions is using the arts to help youth cope with trauma. She has facilitated poetry and theatre workshops with young girls coping with sexual and physical abuse, children who have witnessed violence, children coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and children who relocated to New York City after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Renée graduated from The New School, where she earned a degree in Creative Writing and a certificate in Drama Therapy. Renée currently lives in New York City.

Check out the book trailer for A Place Where Hurricanes Happen:

4 comments:

Linda Jackson said...

Two of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. Thanks for the advice on writing about social issues in children's literature, Renee.

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

thanks for the advice Cynthia :)

Naomi Canale said...

Beautiful books and writer! Thank you!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Linda & Naomi, isn't Renee a gem! Thanks so much for chiming in.

Great to hear from you, Shelli! All the credit goes to Renee!

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