Group Discussion: Watch Us Rise

Welcome to our first book discussion of 2019! We all enjoyed reading Renee Watson’s & Ellen Hagan’s feminist novel “Watch Us Rise” that gave us two amazing teens Jasmine & Chelsea that we all laughed, cried, and loved with. Onto our discussion!

K. Imani: I first read this book almost in one sitting, it was so good! I loved how it was so “in your face”, but completely authentic at the same time. There were many touching moments, many funny moments where I laughed out loud, moments where I was annoyed with the characters (mainly Chelsea), and moments where I felt so proud of these girls. I loved the structure of the novel and greatly enjoyed the inclusion of the poetry, and the different styles of the Write Like A Girl blog posts. This is definitely a book that I would think about using in the classroom. So, what did you think of the book? What aspects of it did you absolutely love?

Audrey: Honestly, one of the things I loved most was all the different forms of media in the book. There were blog posts (and likes/reblogs/comments on them), poetry, sketches/drawings, posters, biographies, lists, etc. that all got used to tell Jasmine and Chelsea’s story, and I thought it was all very cleverly constructed.

I also loved the fact that this was explicitly a novel about activism and the journey of how to be an activist. Jasmine and Chelsea made mistakes in their activism, but they also learned from them. I loved their conversations with Leidy in the second half of the book and how she got them examine their own motives and consider how they could expand their activism. The mentorship and community support demonstrated in this book was really uplifting.

Crystal: There were many things to appreciate so it’s hard to pick, but like Audrey, I really enjoyed the variety of media used to tell this story. I especially like to find poetry in YA, so that was an extra gift.

Activism can be complicated. I really liked seeing how Jasmine and Chelsea used their voices. Sometimes they acted impulsively, but they ultimately worked through what they wanted to say and how they could say it to create change. I appreciated seeing them have to think through what they were really fighting for and why they were speaking out.

Jessica: First off, I have to say: I love the cover. It’s just so eye-catching and whenever I see it in a library or a bookstore, my heart lifts a little. Totally agree on the different forms of media. It really brought the story alive. I appreciated that the book tackled the online aspect of activism — the good and the bad. That’s never easy, and it made Watch Us Rise all the more relevant for today’s generation of students.

K. Imani: This novel had a lot of poetry in it. What was your favorite poem? Mine was The Bod (pg. 237) that Jasmine wrote. As a Black woman, it really spoke to me with all the insecurities I’ve had about my body and my hair at times in my life. The way the poem moved from dealing with racist words about the body to the acceptance of her body was beautiful to me. The last line really sealed the poem for me.

Audrey: I loved “What It Be Like: on being a girl” (pg 115-116, hard copy edition), particularly the sentence “It be like second-guessing your know-how, like fact-checking your own truth.” That hit hard for me. I’m intimately familiar with that hesitation, that instinct to second-guess my own experiences and desires. I’ve read it a couple times now, and I really appreciate the way the poem transitioned to the final verse.

Crystal: So many of the poems dealt with bodies – how we are seen and how we see ourselves. I enjoyed many of them, but really felt “This Body II” (pg. 333). There are so many things that our bodies are and can be, but no matter what — our body is our own. Jasmine says “My body is perfect and imperfect…” and she lists things that make her body distinctively hers. She explains that her body is a masterpiece. Jasmine reminds us to love our bodies and claim them.

Jessica: It’s honestly really hard to choose! If I had to pick, then I’d say “What It Be Like: on being a girl” was also my favorite. It definitely rang familiar to me in a lot of ways.

K. Imani: While this novel is practically a feminist manifesto, it does touch on the need for intersectionality. The moment when Chelsea doesn’t consider Jasmine’s size when ordering the t-shirts really hit home how white women feminists can get caught up in their own fight and forget about others. I felt like it was a lesson, not for just Chelsea, but for all budding young Feminists to really think about how different types of women experience oppression and their own privilege.  

Audrey: Yeah, I cringed when Chelsea picked up the t-shirts because I knew immediately that she’d screwed up. She took the time to order extra small but it never crossed her mind to go beyond a large in the women’s sizes, which–yeah, that’s a major oversight on her part, especially right after writing a poem against the ads that told her to change her body. I’m also glad that the girls were told that some of their actions had negatively impacted people they hadn’t considered (the school janitorial staff) and resolved to apologize and be smarter about the actions they took. Jasmine and Chelsea’s conversations with each other, their friends, and their mentors in the community were often learning opportunities and chances for them to think deeply about their goals and the repercussions of their actions.

And on a broader level, their whole school was supposed to incorporate social justice in basically everything, but there were still major flaws within it. There were a lot of intersectionality fails there, from the students to the teachers to the principal. Even in spaces where people want to “do better,” they still screw up and can push back when someone points out where they failed.

Crystal: Yes, this was definitely a wake up call for Chelsea. No matter how much she thought she was seeing and addressing injustice, ignorance and/or obliviousness could still happen. I think it can be worse with people (and I’m pointing that finger at myself too) who are making concerted efforts in specific areas of injustice because they are ultra-focused on that aspect of identity or marginalization and then it’s hard to see the bigger picture. Like Audrey pointed out, there were flaws throughout the school even though it had a social justice emphasis.

Jessica: There’s definitely been more and more conversations online about what intersectionality is and isn’t, and I think Chelsea and Jasmine’s interactions really drive that home. There was a lot of nuance to the discussions and conflicts in Watch Us Rise, and it made me realize I definitely need to give this book a reread to digest all of it.

K. Imani: One of the parts of the book that I loved was when Jasmine & Chelsea did the Feminist Spotlight. I had not heard of any of those artists so I was happy to learn about Feminist artists doing their thing. I know if I were to teach this book, I would have my students look up these women and respond in some way to their art. What other aspects of art that was all over this novel stood out to you?

Audrey: I think the thing that stood out to me most wasn’t necessarily the art itself but the fact that in the novel there’s a few sentences explicitly mentioning that Jasmine and Chelsea deliberately set out “to make sure we were inclusive of art forms, ethnicities, and work for and about women.” And then the text itself backed up that in-universe decision by highlighting a diverse range of activists, many of which I hadn’t heard of before. The book repeatedly had Jasmine and Chelsea’s draw upon and name previous activists and movements for their inspiration, and there was even an entire bibliography at the end entitled Resources for Young Activists that included poets, books, blogs/sites, etc. I appreciated that effort toward inclusion, the acknowledgment of the work done before, and the resources provided for the teens reading the book so that they have a place to start from with their own work.

Crystal: I just really appreciated the many ways of expressing their thoughts and opinions. They used their voices in so many ways. I also liked that Isaac is also part of this feminist group, not just because he cares for Jasmine, but because he’s actually a feminist. Like Audrey, I also found the resources to be an excellent addition to the book so readers can move into or continue their own activism or growth.

Jessica: The aspect that stood out to me was just how varied it was. I’m usually not a fan of books that incorporate different forms of media, or show exactly what the protagonists have created (i.e. a book about fanfiction, with actual fanfiction excerpts). I’m very picky that way! But Watch Us Rise was brilliant in its portrayal of the many forms of art that Jasmine and Chelsea create and reference. I just loved that.

K. Imani: I realized most of my comments & questions have focused on the feminist aspect of the novel and forgetting that this novel just also gives us a slice of real life. I feel like Jasmine’s sweet growing romantic relationship with Isaac, that also mixed with her growing activism and her self-esteem, really showed how complicated life is. Jasmine was finding her voice throughout the novel but was also opening herself up to loving herself and being loved by someone, and the way their relationship was written was so beautiful and real. Their relationship was very healthy and I was happy to see it portrayed that way. What other storylines stood out to you?

Audrey: I also enjoyed Jasmine and Isaac’s relationship for the reasons you pointed out–it was very sweet–especially since it contrasted so well with Chelsea and James’s not-a-romance. I was so proud of Chelsea for realizing that she deserved better in a potential partner and that James wasn’t it, no matter how attracted to him she was. The two romantic plots were great foils for each other.

The death of Jasmine’s dad was a major, and hard-hitting, part of the novel as well. I haven’t read many YA books that dealt with the death of a parent due to cancer, but I felt that this plot was handled sensitively and handled well. I was glad that Jasmine’s family, friends, and community were there to support her, her dad, and their family all through her dad’s failing health, eventual death, and Jasmine’s mourning.

Crystal: Yes, there was way more going on here than I expected, but I too appreciated Jasmine and Isaac’s relationship. It didn’t overwhelm the story, but revealed another layer of life. There’s a lot happening, but the relationships in the story are meaningful.

So, that is our discussion. Have you read Watch Us Rise yet? What did you think of it? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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