Top of page

Best of the National Book Festival: Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan, 2019

Share this post:

Welcome to our ongoing celebration of the Library of Congress National Book Festival. Each weekday, we will feature a video presentation from among the thousands of authors who have appeared at the National Book Festival and as part of our new year-long series, National Book Festival Presents. Mondays will feature topical nonfiction; Tuesday: poetry or literary fiction; Wednesday: history, biography, memoir; Thursday: popular fiction; and Friday: authors who write for children and teens. Please enjoy, and make sure to explore our full National Book Festival video collection!

The following post was written by Sasha Dowdy and Monica Valentine, program specialists in the Library’s Young Readers Center.

This event from the National Book Festival is especially for teens, and this blog post includes prompts for writing and thinking that teens, families and teachers can use to explore the author and the author’s work. Recommended for ages 12+.

On the Teens stage, Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan discussed their book, “Watch Us Rise,” winner of both a Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott King Award, during the 2019 Library of Congress National Book Festival. Monica Valentine, program specialist in the Library’s Young Readers Center, introduced Watson and Hagan on stage.

Renée Watson is the New York Times best-selling author of “Piecing Me Together” and “Betty Before X” (co-written with Ilyasah Shabazz), among others. She is the founder of the I, Too, Arts Collective, a nonprofit committed to nurturing underrepresented voices in the creative arts. Ellen Hagan is a writer, performer and educator. She directs the Poetry and Theater departments at the DreamYard Project as well as its International Poetry Exchange Program with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. She co-leads the Alice Hoffman Young Writers Retreat at Adelphi University.

The presentation starts at 2:27. Timestamps for major topics are below:

  • Renée Watson reads “What It Be Like: On Being a Girl” (3:25)
  • “Art is never just art… we should be using our art to say something, do something” (6:10)
  • Renée Watson reads “This Body: A Definition Poem” (9:07)
  • Ellen Hagan reads: “Girlhood, noun.”  (22:27)
  • Q&A starts (24:34)

Writing and Thinking Prompts

  • Have you read “Watch Us Rise” or any other works by these authors? How has this talk changed the way you think about them?
  • What surprised you about the talk? How did it affect you?
  • If you had been at the talk, what would you have asked Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan?

6:34: Jasmine’s dad sends his daughter and her friends on summer scavenger hunts of historic places and “Brown Art.” He calls them Artivists—part artists, part activists. He encourages them to “go out and find some inspiration, create art in response to what you see.”

  • Find your favorite piece of architecture or art in your city. Observe it closely, reflect on what you know about it and how you feel, and find out more. Why is this your favorite piece? How is it inspiring? How can you create art in response to what you see? If you can’t go on a physical scavenger hunt, find inspiration in the Library’s digital print and photograph collections and in documents from your state here.

16:05: Jasmine, Chelsea and friends write and illustrate their resolutions for the new year. They say: “I resolve to mourn, I resolve to heal, I resolve to love.” “[I resolve to] make art that matters.” “I resolve to say what I want when I want to whomever I want. … I resolve to speak louder and longer. Make my voice bigger and stronger. I resolve to be a woman who wins.”

  • Write down your resolution, starting with “I resolve.” Write as many as you can think of. What symbols could you use to represent one or more of your resolutions? Find or create images and symbols to make your own “art that matters.”

31:53: Ellen Hagan and Renée Watson based their characters on themselves and on people they know.

  • Who inspires you? What is their story? How does that person communicate? What do they care about? Think of someone in your life who inspires you and build a character around that person. How is the character similar to and different from the real person?
  • Can you think of any fictional characters from books or movies that were based on real people? Do you think it is easier or harder to create a character based on a real person or a character who is completely fictional?

26:04: Ellen Hagan and Renée Watson collaborated on the entire writing process: “Set a timer, write, share with each other, talk.”

  • Find a writing buddy. This does not have to be long-term; get together for one short story or piece of art. Connect virtually via video. Build your characters. Decide on a general idea of your creation.
  • Follow the steps described by Renée Watson. How did your creation turn out? What did you talk about and how did the conversation affect your creation? What would you do differently if you tried this again?

Explore More

Renée Watson notes, at 29:18, that “black girls are not often a part of the feminist conversation.” Remember the women of color who helped push forward women’s suffrage in this online exhibition.

Hear stories of people who were part of the civil rights movement to obtain justice, freedom and equality for African Americans.

Listen to one of Renée Watson’s inspirations, Sonia Sanchez, read her poem “Present” (at 42:41).

The 2020 Library of Congress National Book Festival will celebrate its 20th birthday this year. You can get up-to-the-minute news, schedule updates and other important festival information by subscribing to this blog. The festival is made possible by the generosity of sponsors. You too can support the festival by making a gift now.


  1. Nice book! The people of the USA are made up of different communities and cultures that have always fought for a more equal way of being.
    I hope that this dream and struggle of the people of the USA for freedom and equality for all, within the respect, will continue.

Comments are closed.