Before I interview Renée, here’s my quick synopsis of her new novel, What Momma Left Me, from Bloomsbury Press (for 8 to 11 year-olds)
Following the death of their mother, and disappearance of their father, thirteen year-old Serenity and her brother Danny move in with their grandparents. At first, Serenity is put off by their rules and insistence on her attending long hours at church. There's the added challenge of attending a new school, and trying to make all new friends, all while missing her mother. Things start to brighten when Serenity meets Maria, also in the youth ministry group at the church. But as her brother falls in with a sketchy crowd, and Serenity finds herself drawn to a boy in that same clique, Serenity is faced with tough choices, which will test her faith, and sense of right and wrong. It’s a page-turner with real heart!
CS: In What Momma Left Me, the church is central to the plot. Can you talk about that?
RW: I write very close to reality and I grew up in the church. It was a normal part of life that was not separate from my school or friends. I wanted to show that fluidity and connection, and how so much good can emerge from that sort of tight-knit community.
CS: People often say that even though a novel is fiction, parts of characters come from the author and her experience. How much of the Serenity character came from you?
RW: *Laughs* I was always questioning everything, just like Serenity! My journal was my best friend too. And as Serenity looks out for Maria, I really looked out for my friends in school, particularly a new girl, who seemed overwhelmed. Also, when I was little, my mom was a lot like Serenity’s grandma. She prayed with me through troubled times and always had time to listen to me.
C: I thought one of the big questions in Momma was what is real peace? Do you agree?
R: Yes. There was so much chaos in Serenity's world that she was worried she might not find peace until she went to heaven, or that it didn’t exist at all. Her grandma helped her see that it was about making peace with the ups and downs of life: “You know how many times I’ve cried?... So many I can’t count.” Grandma smiles. “But guess what? I can’t count the laughs either!”
C: I love how each chapter begins with a poem. I especially love your Ode to Cake! Have you considered writing a poetry book for kids?
R: Sure. Poetry was my first love. I read at open mic poetry readings around the city, and do poetry workshops with my students.
C: What are you working on next?
R: I have a picture book forthcoming with Random House called Harlem’s Little Blackbird, about Florence Mills, a Harlem Renaissance performer. And I’ll be doing a reading and book signing in New York City at Bank Street on November 4th, from 5:30 to 7:30, so come on down! I invite you to visit my website for upcoming events and info. www.reneewatson.net
C: Thanks so much for stopping by.