Renée Watson’s books for young readers include Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills and Ways to Make Sunshine. Her YA novel Piecing Me Together received a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Award. Watson’s new picture book, Born on the Water, co-written with 1619 Project founder Nikole Hannah-Jones, chronicles the consequences of slavery and the history of Black resistance in the United States. Brendan Kiely is the author of All American Boys (with Jason Reynolds), Tradition, The Last True Love Story, and more. He’s the recipient of the Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award and the Walter Dean Myers Award, among other accolades. In his new book, The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege, Kiely aims to open up a conversation about racism, privilege, and allyship. We asked Watson and Kiely to discuss their latest books, their approaches to writing about race for young readers, and their hopes for how educators and parents can use their work to spark difficult but important dialogues.
Renée Watson: Brendan, congratulations on The Other Talk. I remember when you first told me you were thinking about writing it. Back then, you had your reservations and you weren’t quite sure if you would/should do it. As authors, we often have several ideas we are pondering or tinkering with that we put on the back burner either because of timing or lack of inspiration. I’d love to know what pushed you to start writing The Other Talk. Why this book? Why now?
Brendan Kiely: Thanks, Renée. It’s true. I’d been fiddling with this idea for a few years but just couldn’t find my way in. Many people of the global majority are familiar with the Talk they have with their families, the talk about navigating or, quite frankly, surviving racism in America. But it seemed to me that the Other Talk was one in which white people had to also speak directly about our own racial identity, and therefore racism’s impact on our lives, which would mean talking honestly about the unfair advantages white people so often have in a society so deeply affected by racism—and I felt confused and unsure about how to get that “right,” or if, as a white person, I could even have the perspective it would take to speak about it well. I was still stumbling my way in and out of the book when Jason Reynolds and I did a fundraiser for Black Visions Collective after George Floyd was murdered in the summer of 2020. He and I had been talking for years about how white people’s hesitations and inability to talk about their own racial identity might be one of the enormous obstacles to tackling the problems of systemic racism. We were talking about it again that night when he said, in so many words, “Would you go write that book finally?”
I dumped everything I’d written so far and just let a draft of the book rip loose from my heart. Instead of trying to be “right,” I just laid bare my own flaws and how they are connected to the broader historical and systemic problems of racism. It was a disaster of a draft, but at least it was honest, so it gave people who were kind enough to read early drafts something to respond to and help me shape into the frank and clear discussion about white privilege I hoped could be a tool for white families to use to talk to each other about their white racial identity and their proximity to the problems of systemic racism.
Sometimes I wonder if while we are inspired to write about the influences of history on our lives today, the magnitude of that importance can feel daunting, and make the voices of doubt, confusion, or hesitation too loud in our minds. Did you have any of those same kinds of reservations getting started on Born on the Water? And, how did you get involved with the 1619 Project?
Watson: I was invited to co-write The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Namrata Tripathi, our editor, and Nikole Hannah-Jones. We had an initial meeting about the project and after we all agreed it was a good fit, Nikole and I started working on the manuscript.
I definitely had reservations when I was first approached. I wanted to make sure I could add something meaningful to Nikole’s brilliant work, and it was daunting to think about how to tell such a big story in a picture book. I think my personal conviction about why this story is important for young readers outweighed any fear or intimidation I had.
The fear was about getting it right and making sure we showed the humanity and resilience of the enslaved people. I kept thinking about teachers who are looking for tools to use in the classroom to talk about slavery in the United States with young learners and I really wanted to create something for them as well. That was one of the reasons why Nikole and I decided to write Born on the Water in verse. Each poem is its own moment and breaks down this big, heavy story in manageable vignettes. It was our hope to take care of the reader—including caregivers and teachers—gently leading them through a story that ultimately honors the resilience of Black Americans. After each poem the reader can pause and reflect before continuing, and hopefully each verse will answer questions while also provoking more questions.
In reading The Other Talk, I could feel you striking that balance of truth-telling and gentleness. You lead the reader through history, statistics, and your own personal anecdotes. I think it’s perfect for teen readers because it’s conversational, educational, and challenging all at the same time. What is your hope for young readers and educators reading this book?
Kiely: That’s just it, isn’t it? While the truth can be difficult, messy, uncomfortable, possibly scary or hard to hear, we can’t dodge it, or pretend it doesn’t exist, nor hide it from our young people. We have to try to find ways to share it so that telling the truth, hearing the truth, learning about the truth can be empowering. That’s why I appreciate so deeply your poetry and your strategy of vignettes for Born on the Water—it’s all about the delivery. That’s what I hoped to achieve in The Other Talk, as well. I wanted to try to empower young people and their families and the educators who come to the book with a language and framework to discuss the history of white privilege and how it impacts life today, and I felt like the most inviting and honest way to begin that conversation was to use stories from my own life and say, “Look, here’s what I didn’t know I didn’t know, and now that I know a little more, I’d like to share all this with you so you don’t make the same mistakes I’ve made, and so you have a tool to help you be a more effective and authentic partner in the pursuit of racial justice in your community.” As a teacher, as a father, and as a writer, I think being honest with young people, letting them see me as someone who makes mistakes, who isn’t an expert, who doesn’t have it all figured out, is a part of the honesty they deserve. By cultivating a space in which I allow myself to be vulnerable with them, I think it creates a space for them to seize opportunities for empowerment.
I think my role as an educator and a writer for young people is to be the best partner I can for them in helping them shape the world they wish to see. That’s my hope for The Other Talk—that it inspires readers and educators, especially those of us who are white, to want to become more self-aware of privilege, to listen more and learn more, especially to those who have been telling these truths for so long, and to feel motivated to more actively participate in the work many people are already doing to help build a more racially just community.
I appreciate your question and the word, “hope,” because I often think about hope. I think it’s important to have hope, to look for it, even in the face of truths that are so daunting. I think it’s important to cultivate a language of hope, because when we learn the language of a conversation, we can join it. In order to truly believe in a more racially just future, I think we must participate in the pursuit of it. Did hope play a role in your work in Born on the Water? Or, more generally, does hope play a role in your work as a writer and an educator?
Watson: Yes, yes! I am the product of hope. The hope of my ancestors who had no logical reason for believing this world could be, would be a better place and yet they prayed and fought for a day to come that many of them didn’t even get to see. I am their answered prayer. I think a lot of people are dismissive of the word “hope.” But to truly have hope is a hard, grueling action. It takes perseverance, patience, resilience and a resolve that even with setbacks, there is always a way that can be made, always a next chapter.
When it comes to writing hopeful stories, I am careful not to confuse that with writing happy endings. I think there’s a big difference. In all of my stories, I want the reader to know that the main character has the tools they need to keep going, to be able to face any future obstacles that come their way, not that there will be no more obstacles.
At the beginning of Born on the Water, the main character is longing to know where she comes from. After she learns the history of Black Americans there is a sense of pride and she realizes that her people worked hard and fought for her freedom, that they left her a legacy to continue. This is why the last sentence has no punctuation. Nikole and I deliberately decided not to end the sentence with a period. There is no real ending in the sense of “and they all lived happily ever after.” Instead, the reader understands that the story hasn’t ended for this character, it is just beginning. She has picked up the mantle and wants to be involved in making her world a better place.
This is why I believe teaching the truth about our history is important. History is a record of hope—proof that time and time again people overcame hardships, fought to change laws, protested injustice, made art in perilous times. I believe our young people need to know that. We need examples of how to hope, of how to stand up for justice.
And speaking of examples, another thing I love about The Other Talk is that you give practical examples to white readers on how to have uncomfortable conversations about race and privilege and what solidarity with the global majority can look like. I thought we could end our conversation with you sharing a few thoughts about the how. How can white teachers, parents, and caregivers begin this work with their student or child? What does taking action look like in small, practical ways?
Kiely: “History is a record of hope...” as a reason for telling the story of history truthfully resonates so profoundly. I think it is as true for telling our collective history as it is for telling our personal histories. Part of the how in your question, that I try to address in The Other Talk, is for white people like me to tell our own personal stories more truthfully by including how our racial identity plays a role in our stories. Because how can anyone trust me if I’m not even being honest with them in the first place? Choosing to be more honest is an action.
But really, before we can join a conversation or partner with anyone in a meaningful way, I think we have to practice being better listeners. Listening is an action, something we can do actively and something we can model for our students and children. And for white people like me, that means choosing to listen without getting defensive, choosing to listen to and believe the stories and truths about racism that people of the global majority have been sharing for so long. This is true in our study of history, too. American history is a pluralistic history. So every child in America should learn about our history—that includes truths told from Indigenous perspectives, the many different Asian-American and Latinx perspectives, and the truths told in the 1619 Project. Choosing to listen to the truths of our history and our present is an action.
So then, when it’s time to join a conversation more actively, and white folks like me are telling our stories more honestly, we won’t begin with all the excuses about why we didn’t know (I didn’t know about my privilege in these interactions with law enforcement; I didn’t know how privilege has trickled down intergenerationally because of my grandfather’s access to benefits in the GI Bill, etc.) but rather speak about those privileges clearly and acknowledge how they are a part of the social systems that have been so deeply racially unjust.
Listening more and being honest about our privilege isn’t about feeling bad. They are actions we as white people can take (and talk about with our young folks) so that we can partner with people of the global majority more genuinely, and with more humility and a greater sense of urgency, in the hope for and in the pursuit of (to riff off your words above) a more racially just future.
Watson: I so appreciate your emphasis on listening being an action. I think young people especially need to know that taking action doesn’t always have to be attending a march or making a speech. We often tell young people they can change the world—and I believe that—but first I believe it’s important to encourage them to change their world. I challenge young people to look right around them in their own families, neighborhoods, schools and think about how to be kind, patient, generous, how to show empathy—how to listen and take in someone else’s story. Nothing about that is easy or small.
So thank you, Brendan, for being vulnerable and sharing your story with young readers. You have challenged them to do something that is not easy or small and I really do believe your book will impact so many. It’s been so wonderful talking with you. I’m so thankful for our friendship and am excited to see what you do next.
Kiely: Renée, I’m so deeply thankful for our friendship (and this conversation together!) as well. No matter how solitary the work of writing books might feel, I never feel alone, because I feel like I’m working in tandem with a friend like you, someone who shares such a similar passion and reason for writing for young people. And you’re also a constant inspiration. Whether it’s Piecing Me Together, Love Is a Revolution, Born on the Water, or any of the books in between, your work always glows with the warmth of your heart. You breathe tremendous grace and dignity into your characters and stories—and by extension the world. What greater gift can we strive to give our young people than a language for loving one another?
The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege by Brendan Kiely. Atheneum/Dlouhy, $18.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-5344-9404-6
The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, illus. by Nikkolas Smith. Kokila, $18.99 Nov. 16 ISBN 978-0-593-30735-9