Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson, 208 pp, RL 4
Some Places More Than Others
by Renée Watson
Cover art by Shadra Strickland
Purchased Audio Book,
narrated by the superb Bhani TurpinOn the verge of turning twelve and becoming a big sister, Amara Baker narrates a this story of family, connections and acceptance. The only child of a clothing designer and marketing executive at Nike, Amara has had a comfortable childhood in a suburb of Portland. Born the day her father's mother died, Amara has often heard how much she is like her grandma Grace, but not much else about her father's childhood in Harlem. Feeling pressure from her mother to abandon her sneakerhead sense of style for more feminine dresses and worried about how the arrival of a baby, especially after her mother suffered miscarriages, will change her life, Amara wants to spend time with her father. But, when she asks to accompany him on a business trip to New York City and stay with her Grandpa Earl, a former basketball coach, she gets a firm "no."
A school project requiring students to collect family memorabilia and interview relatives prompts Amara to ask again, and, surprisingly, she gets her wish, with a promise to her mother that she will work to get her father to talk to Grandpa Earl. Staying in her father's childhood home, Amara is excited to explore Harlem, even if she has to depend on her cousins, teenagers Nina and prickly Ava, to show her around while her dad works. One special day, her Grandpa Earl takes Amara and her cousins to visit landmarks, ending at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture where she experiences the Rivers Cosmogram, a work of art inspired by Hughes's poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." This inlaid, geometric design, an encoding of memories that draws connections between people and places through space and time, connects the histories of Arturo Schomburg and Langston Hughes, whose ashes are interred beneath the cosmogram. These connections that resonate for Amara, who makes a cosmogram of her own, connecting Harlem and Portland.
As Amara explores the city and her father's childhood, she learns about the deep wounds between father and son that began with expectations about what a man should be. Clumsy on the basketball court, Charles was a writer, a poet who dreamed of reading at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Amara notices that in pictures, he is always standing at his mother's side. The arrival of Amara's birthday and the anniversary of her grandma's death brings climax and resolution, with Charles reading his poetry out loud for his father for the first time ever.
While the cast of Watson's book is all black, her story is universal. Amara's desire to connect with her relatives and her worries that she was a disappointment to her mother resonated, especially as Amara is a well-developed character. Knowing that Watson has connections to both Harlem and Portland, two very different places, made listening to Some Places More Than Others a truly wonderful experience - particularly since I have connections to both places also! I met my husband and graduated from college in Portland, OR, and my daughter lived in Harlem for two years while going to grad school.
While researching to write this review, I came across this interview between Watson and cover illustrator and friend, Shadra Strickland. I especially appreciated this quote from Watson that signals an important step toward body positivity and diversity. Traditionally, if the main character of a kid's book (and adult, too, I'm sure) is presented as anything other than thin on the cover, this becomes part of the plot. Watson explains her choice this way;
The other thing that was really important for me was to have Amara’s full body on the cover. Although Amara’s body is never described in the book, I wanted readers to know she is fat. I wanted a fat girl to be able to exist in a story that was not centered on her size. To have Amara’s full body on the cover—looking stylish in her puffy coat and sneakers—makes me so proud. I didn’t get to have that as a young reader, and I think having an image like that would have been validating and powerful for me. I am intentional about making work that literally makes space for a variety of sizes to be seen. So, thank you for creating that for the cover.