AUTHOR: Renée Watson & Ellen Hagan
CATEGORY/AUDIENCE: Young Adult
RELEASE: February 12, 2019
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury YA
LINKS: Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository
Watch Us Rise is a love letter to the space where art and activism intersect. Jasmine and Chelsea are both artists—Jasmine an actress and Chelsea a poet—who are disgusted by the racism and sexism that even their progressive, social justice focused high school is rife with. The blog that the two girls create to showcase poetry and other works about feminism quickly takes on a life of its own. The movement spans to a range of different art forms and voices, which ignites tensions within their school. This novel reminds us that there is so much work to be done; both Chelsea and Jasmine note how social change is widely celebrated despite the fact that racism and sexism are still huge issues, even in social justice circles.
The authors pose a question throughout the novel: What does it mean to be a feminist? Jasmine pushes back against mainstream feminism that often excludes Black women and fat women, while Chelsea tries to reconcile being a feminist with also wanting to buy cute clothes and have a boyfriend. These two girls are incredibly different but both assert that feminists and activists don’t look one certain way. Watch Us Rise is about exploring what active allyship looks like and realizing that not all marginalized people share the same struggles, even within the same community.
Watch Us Rise takes place over the course of a school year; I loved watching Jasmine and Chelsea grow in their feminism and their activism throughout the year, and seeing how they cope with the changes in their lives and families. Both Chelsea and Jasmine have romantic interests, which are slow to unfold. Readers who enjoy the friends-to-lovers trope will love the sweet, budding attraction between Jasmine and her friend Isaac.
Seasoned writer Renée Watson and newcomer Ellen Hagan are a wonderful match. They both created realistic, multidimensional, and flawed characters. Renée Watson is known for her powerful voice, and Jasmine’s is just as memorable and lovable as her previous characters (if not more!). Chelsea is a poet, and the additions of her poetry stood out and made the story feel so real. She is an example of someone who’s not perfect and still has work to do. She often doesn’t realize that her experiences as a thin, white girl are very different from Jasmine, a fat black girl.
I love that this novel touched on intersectionality and how different Jasmine’s and Chelsea’s experiences are. Queer and trans folks are mentioned very briefly, but were not consistently included in the discussions of feminism throughout the story. I would have loved to see more queer and trans characters in this novel, or for Chelsea and Jasmine to make more of an effort to consider this group. I would strongly recommend reading this alongside a book that addresses queer & trans women and nonbinary folks to get a better understanding of intersectional feminism.
While Chelsea and Jasmine take center stage, there are supporting characters that will also steal your heart. Leidy, the older feminist who runs the local anarchist book store, acts as a mentor to the girls and encourages them to interrogate their own activism and question who and what it’s really for. Both Chelsea and Jasmine have vibrant, fleshed-out families that felt real. Chelsea comes from a traditional Catholic family and struggles with understanding some of her parents’ beliefs; throughout the novel, she pushes her mom to think critically about some of the norms in their family. Meanwhile, Jasmine’s family is coping with her father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. She and her father have a tender, beautiful relationship and he is a driving force behind her passion for art as activism. While feminism and activism are the primary focus of Watch Us Rise, the novel also touches on friendship, family dynamics and grief.
Watch Us Rise will be adored by fans of Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie, Amy Reed’s The Nowhere Girls, Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’, and Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s The Latte Rebellion. This book is enjoyable for readers passionate about social justice, but it’s also a superb novel for those new to conversations around feminism and activism. Many teenage girls experience sexism, harassment, and racism, and Watch Use Rise tells them what they can do to fight back. This an extremely educational novel about inclusivity and intersectionality, that is simultaneously entertaining and incredibly compelling. It should be in every YA library collection, and I hope that soon we’ll see more books for teens about feminism that highlight an even more inclusive range of experiences.