Word on the street is that young adult books are “too woke” now. I chortle every time I hear such patently absurd allegations, for anyone who levels them clearly has spent little time around not only young adult literature but also young adults themselves! Adolescents and young adults are passionate and aware about social justice. They want to learn, want to share, want to act to make the world a better place. All too often, it’s us adults who are getting in the way—yes, we need to help younger people channel their enthusiasm in safe ways, but we shouldn’t mistake “safe” for “status quo.” This is what Rénee Watson and Ellen Hagan try to convey in Watch Us Rise, a book about two girls taking on “the Man” because the patriarchy is getting them down.
Jasmine and Chelsea are starting their junior year of high school. They go to an “alternative” school in New York City, and it requires all students to be enrolled in an after-school social justice club. Yet Jasmine and Chelsea realize that the clubs they naturally gravitate towards aren’t working for them—Jasmine because of an incident of anti-Black racism from her teacher and some fatphobic bullying from a student; Chelsea because her poetry club wasn’t interested in reading outside of the canon. So they make their own club and start posting radical blog articles—and soon they get in trouble from the administration because of the waves they make and the people they piss off.
An obvious comparison might be to Moxie, though I have only watched the movie and not read the book, so the comparison might be less commensurate. Moxie also features teen girls inciting others to stand up for feminism; however, my critique of that movie was that it centred a white girl as its protagonist when there were perfectly interesting protagonists of colour right there. In this respect, Watch Us Rise wins out by centering a fat, Black girl as one of its two protagonists. Indeed, some of the most intriguing moments of the book come not from racism but from fatphobia and the way Jasmine often feels erased as she navigates a world made for thinner people.
The trouble that both Jasmine and Chelsea land in as a result of their Write Like a Girl blog feels so timely right now. We live in an era where people with fascist sympathies claim to fight for free speech yet will do everything they can to drown out marginalized voices. The people who complain to Jasmine and Chelsea’s school about Write Like a Girl exist in real life. They complain about teachers who tweet too much about progressive issues and try to get books removed from school and public libraries. They complain that their white children are “harmed” by learning about the enslavement of African peoples or the genocide of Indigenous peoples.
These same people have no interest in letting kids speak their minds. As I mentioned in my introduction, part of what makes Watch Us Rise powerful is that everything in this book comes from Jasmine and Chelsea. The supportive adults in their lives—their parents, the bookshop owner—guide them, offering suggestions for how they can get their message out, but they never attempt to filter or minimize the girls’ messages. I especially appreciate how the bookshop owner lets the girls make mistakes but also nudges them as appropriate—such as when an act of resistance ends up making a lot of extra work for the school custodians, and Jasmine and Chelsea realize they should probably apologize.
This is the trajectory for anyone who is learning how to be an activist. All of us, no matter our age, will get things wrong. Chelsea screws up and has to apologize to Jasmine. Jasmine has a lot of trouble working out her feelings, whether they are her romantic inclinations towards a friend or how upset she is about being bullied by a pretty white girl at school. Activism is hard enough when you don’t have a chronically ill parent or a judgemental grandmother!
Watch Us Rise is incendiary yet also compassionate, interesting and eye-opening. I think it will make some adults groan and say it is “heavy-handed,” but I would disagree. It’s the perfect level for young adults who have the passion for activism but need some inspiration. I loved so much about this book, devoured it so quickly because I couldn’t wait to see how it ends. The ending, while far from perfect, might best be described as quite realistic yet also hopeful. Maybe that’s what we need in this world right now.