An Interview with Author Renée Watson

I know it is going to be a wonderful and productive week when Colby Sharp and I kick it off with a Sharp-Schu trifecta. Today, we're celebrating Renée Watson's Harlem's Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills. It is an inspiring and well-told picture-book biography that garnered many positive reviews from our students. 

Are you ready to hop from blog to blog? 

Mr. Schu: Thank you for introducing my students and me to Florence Mills. Why did you decide to write a picture book about her?

 Renée Watson: I wanted to tell a story about an African American woman who did extraordinary things, that young people might not know about. We learn about the brave and legendary women Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman often. I wanted to add an unsung hero to the list.

When I learned about Florence, I knew her story was the one to tell. I was moved by her boldness to stand up for her beliefs at such a young age. My hope was that young people—regardless of if they wanted to be a singer—would be inspired by her story and see that you’re never too young to make a difference and that regardless of where you come from, you can achieve great things.

Mr. Schu: What do you hope young readers take away from Harlem's Little Blackbird?

Renée Watson:One thing that I hope resonates with young readers is the power of one’s voice. I hope young people close the book asking, “What can my voice do?”

Mr. Schu: I read that you teach writing and creative drama therapy. How could an educator use Harlem's Little Blackbird in a creative drama activity?

Renée Watson: I’ve used drama, art, and writing activities with Florence’s story. One drama activity I’ve facilitated is having students choose a scene from the book when something unfair happens to Florence. I ask students to think of a new ending to that scene: How should Florence have been treated? What would you do in this situation? They act out the scene with a new ending and we discuss it. Role-play is a powerful tool in the classroom and giving students a chance to right a wrong and practice being good citizens prepares them for life outside of the classroom. This activity was inspired by my mentors, educators Linda Christensen and Bill Bigelow.

Mr. Schu: Please recommend a resource for a fifth grader who wants to learn more about Florence Mills and the Harlem Renaissance.

Renée Watson: Bill Egan, author and jazz researcher, has a website dedicated to Florence with photos, timelines, and articles.

Mr. Schu: Please complete these sentence starters:

Picture books are my first love.

Reading is how I learned to put myself in someone else’s shoes.

Music is as necessary as food. I listen to it as I shower, write, cook, clean, walk, drive. Music has always been a big part of my life.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me what students say they want their voices to do. I ask this question at the end of my school visits, reminding them that Florence used her voice for things big and small. Here are some of the answers from third graders in Portland, Philly, and New York:

“I want my voice to stand up against bullies."

“I want my voice to sing loud like the birds outside my window.”

“I want my voice to calm my baby brother when he is crying.”

I am giving away a copy of Harlem's Little Blackbird.

Rules for the Giveaway 

1. It will run from 2/17 to 11:59 P.M. CST on 2/19. 

2. You must be at least 13, 

3. Please pay it forward. :) 

Renne Watson is today's Nerdy Book Club blogger. I predict you'll share her post with many of your students and friends throughout the year. A paper copy is going on my inspiration board. 

Mr. Colby Sharp reviewed Harlem's Little Blackbird. 


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