Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson, 272 pp, RL: Middle Grade
Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson
Published by Bloomsbury
Library Bound Copy from my Library
"I am learning to speak. / To give myself a way out. A way in." These are the first words spoken by narrator Jade Butler and, while she is speaking specifically about learning Spanish so that she can travel to a foreign country, over the course of the novel she learns to speak - to speak up and speak out about what she wants, who she is, and what matters to her - and finds her voice. As a narrator, sixteen-year-old Jade's voice is quietly compelling. She is an African American girl being raised by her overworked, underpaid mother in Portland, Oregon, and attending a predominantly white private school. She describes herself as having "coal skin and hula-hoop hips." She is an artist, creating collages from photographs she takes and scraps of mementos from her life. putting her vision and experience on the page. Jade is also a thoughtful observer and a thinker and Watson does a stunning job not only getting readers into her head, but giving them the potential for a genuine empathetic experience as Jade pieces together the many disparate parts of her life through her work as an artist.
Jade's mother wants her to have opportunities, and that is why she is attending St. Francis on a full scholarship. Meeting with her school counselor on the first day of school, Jade thinks she will be getting information about the Junior Year Study Abroad program she hopes to be nominated for but instead, learns that she has been nominated to join Woman to Woman, a need-based mentorship program for African American girls that includes a scholarship to any college in Oregon. Jade bristles at the idea that she needs this, but knows that she cannot pass up a college scholarship.
Watson adds layer after layer of issues, from race and class, need and privilege, deficit thinking and racial profiling, to Jade's story and it is gripping watching her struggle. Jade's mentor, Maxine, is also black and a graduate of St. Francis, coming from a wealthy family of professionals - doctors, real estate agents, gallery owners. Maxine is preoccupied and unavailable and seems to be using her participation in Women to Women and Jade herself as a way of showing her parents that she is doing something with her life post college. Jade's friendship Sam, a white scholarship student who rides the same city bus to school, brings issues of race into play, both when Sam is nominated for the Study Abroad program and Jade isn't and also when the two are shopping and Jade is the only customer asked to leave her backpack at the counter.
The catalyst for Jade comes when a fifteen-year-old black girl is badly beaten by police in nearby Vancouver. Jade begins to find her voice, to speak out at school, with Maxine and Sam, at Woman to Woman. Pulling together her work as an artist, the connections she has made by participating in Woman to Woman and with a teacher at St. Francis, and her childhood friends, Watson delivers a triumphant, hard won and deserved climax for Jade.
Piecing Me Together won the Coretta Scott King Author award and a Newbery Honor in 2018. Because of the Newbery Honor and the juvenile original cover art (as seen below), I was surprised to begin reading and learn that main character and narrator Jade is sixteen and a junior in high school. I'm not sure why it wasn't given a Printz award, which recognizes the best book for teens, especially in the same year that Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give won a Printz Honor. That said, while a lot of the themes are similar in these two books, Watson's book is one that can sit comfortably on the shelves of an elementary and/or middle school library. Finally, I used the foreign cover of this book, rather than the U.S. cover because, at the top of my review because, with deepest apologies to the artist who created it, I think the original cover does a horrible job representing Jade and the story she tells. Even though I had read the blurb for this book and was intrigued by the plot, it sat on the shelf of my library for months because of the cover, which to me calls to mind the 1970s, not the totally contemporary, vital story that lies within.