Book Review – ‘Watch Us Rise’ by Renee Watson & Ellen Hagan

Title: Watch Us Rise
Authors: Renee Watson, Ellen Hagan
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Word/Page Count: 368 pages (paperback)
Publication Details: by Bloomsbury Australia on March 4th, 2019
RRP: $15.99 AUD

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Synopsis from Goodreads:

Jasmine and Chelsea are sick of the way women are treated even at their progressive NYC high school, so they decide to start a Women’s Rights Club. They post everything online—poems, essays, videos of Chelsea performing her poetry, and Jasmine’s response to the racial macroaggressions she experiences—and soon they go viral. But with such positive support, the club is also targeted by online trolls. When things escalate, the principal shuts the club down. Jasmine and Chelsea will risk everything for their voices—and those of other young women—to be heard.

Watch Us Rise has two protagonists who narrate in alternating chapters – there’s Jasmine, a plus-size black girl who is an actress and writer, and her best friend Chelsea, who is an average-size Caucasian girl that writes poetry. Their other two best friends are Nadine, a Japanese Lebanese singer, and Isaac, a Puerto Rican artist.

First of all, massive props to this book for its commitment to diversity and representation, because this is more true to life than books that focus on predominantly white casts. I also really appreciate its dedication to female friendship and the way that Jasmine and Chelsea constantly support and raise each other up throughout the story. Sometimes this would be a set-up for them to have a falling out, followed by a period of bitterness before the reconciliation, but thankfully Watch Us Rise was more interested in the girls being there for each other, which was fantastic. Plus it was great to see Isaac as a feminist ally instead of excluding boys from the narrative altogether, and that he had interactions with both the main girls, instead of just his crush, which made the friendship dynamics more real and lived-in.

However I wish that Nadine had a stronger presence in the book as she is basically a background figure, and Isaac really only features more prominently due to his role as a love interest. Normally I find books with multiple narrators to be a little difficult to get into, but I would’ve preferred another narrator in this case as I found Chelsea to be extremely frustrating and it would’ve helped to dilute her over-the-top antics if Nadine had been incorporated more.

The problem for me with Chelsea was that she has a point most of the time and I would actually agree with her if only she didn’t go about shouting everyone down to promote her own views. When she quits her poetry club out of frustration with their focus on the classics, ie. white men from the 1800s, I was right with her in expressing dissatisfaction over the adviser promoting the same poets every session instead of looking at a wider range of poets from all backgrounds and time periods. But instead of leaving it at that, Chelsea lashes out at the other students:

“Unlike you and Sonya, I don’t wanna spend all my time writing super-vague poems about forests and animals and pain. I wanna write poems that matter, that fight for something.”

Chelsea unilaterally named the poetry club ‘Poets for Peace and Justice‘ without taking anyone else’s opinions into consideration and then shames her fellow students for wanting to write poetry that appeals to their own interests and aesthetics instead of what matters to her. Unfortunately the only person to push back against her obnoxious self-absorption is the class bully who later gropes her, so of course the reader isn’t meant to agree with him, even though he has a point when he calls her out.

I admire Chelsea’s idealism and her fervent belief in equality and standing up for what’s right, but it’s hard to like the character when she never learns from her mistakes, constantly shoves her opinions down other people’s throats and acts as though she’s the most morally superior person in any given situation, even if she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Her progressive attitudes seem performative rather than genuine – when her sister comments about their family celebrating Christmas Eve, Chelsea notes that:

“I call it a holiday gathering – because I appreciate Hanukkah and Kwanzaa as well, to honor the Jewish and African American members of our community,” I say, smiling and proud of myself.

When her sister asks her to discuss what she actually knows about those celebrations, Chelsea spouts off a few facts that she gleaned from Wikipedia because she has no real in-depth knowledge of the holidays that she’s asserting superiority over appreciating. I’m not sure if the writers meant for her to come across as tone-deaf and smug, and the thing is, this is realistic for some teenagers out there who take up a cause and think they’re worthy of a medal…but I would’ve liked to see her learn the error of her ways, which doesn’t happen.

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Jasmine, on the other hand, was a wonderfully compelling lead. I already sympathized with her from the start with the revelation of her father’s terminal illness, which was sensitively handled and brought me to tears at one point.

I listen to his breathing and tell myself, Hold onto this, you will want to remember this one day. I’ve been doing this ever since Dad was diagnosed. I stare at him, trying to remember the way he tilts his head to the side when he’s trying to remember something, the way he rubs his head when he’s frustrated and trying to hold in his anger. I’ve been listening to his laugh. How it is never quiet, never a chuckle, always coming from a deep well of joy. A booming laugh that vibrates a room. I try to remember all of Dad so I can tell my  future children about him.

Jasmine should’ve been allowed to have a normal year at school being a regular teenage girl, but she had to grow up too quickly by dealing with the impending death of a parent and having the responsibility of looking after her younger sibling while their mother focused on care-giving and work. I was in university when my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and still remember how devastating it was watching his decline and sitting at his deathbed the night he passed. This arc with Jasmine felt so spot-on as a heartbreaking reality far too many people go through and I can’t tell you how moved I was. I wanted to quote whole pages, but restrained myself just to the above which really hit home and still makes me sniffle upon re-reading.

In addition, Jasmine has to cope with microaggressions against her in daily life as a ‘fat black girl’ from a drama teacher wanting her to take a role that played into the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ who needed to go on a diet to her best friend organizing t-shirts for their club that only went up to a women’s large, directly excluding her. That’s not even going into the outright racism and fat-shaming that she’s confronted with! It makes it harder to give Chelsea’s POV any credibility when she’s ranting about the patriarchy in her lip gloss because of names like Pure Doll and Diva-licious, along with plotting to steal another girl’s boyfriend, when we’re in Jasmine’s head as she faces these struggles. I don’t want to diminish one person’s feelings simply because they don’t have it as bad as another person, but I couldn’t help but think Chelsea’s concerns were mostly trivial and skimmed through until we returned to Jasmine’s narrative.

I also enjoyed the development of the relationship between Jasmine and Isaac. I’ve seen the notion raised that it’s anti-feminist for a story to involve a romantic arc for a female character, but I believe that’s only if it’s the defining feature of the character, which certainly wasn’t the case here. Jasmine is fully-developed and has a vibrant inner world which is expressed through her blog posts that are published in the book, so a romance takes away nothing from her. In addition, black women have a history of being seen as ‘undesirable’ and are underrepresented in the media (it’s often the case that lighter-skinned WOC are cast, leaving dark-skinned actresses out of contention), so it’s all the more powerful when a black woman is portrayed as strong, dynamic AND worthy of love just like their white counterparts. Even more rewarding was how sweet and devoted Isaac was to her – when she apologizes for not getting him something for Valentine’s Day, he responds:

“You’ve been giving me your friendship since we were nine years old. That’s all I need.”

I think this is the first love interest I’ve ever seen express that the girl’s friendship is important to him, to make very clear that it’s not just a stepping stone to greater intimacy, and this moment resonated so strongly with me. Isaac has definitely raised the bar for fictional boyfriends!

Pros: one amazing strong protagonist, female friendship, sweet and endearing romantic arc, focus on raising awareness of social issues and inequality

Cons: one frustrating protagonist, can be preachy and heavy-handed

Personal Rating: 3 out of 5 kitties recommend this book.

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Note: this may not have rocked my world, but these reviewers were more positive, so take my opinion with a grain of salt and try it for yourself. 🙂

Ace Reader     |     Sahi @ My World of Books     |     Jasper + Spice     |     Fictionally Sam

Disclaimer: Physical copy provided by publisher free for an unbiased review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

 

2 thoughts on “Book Review – ‘Watch Us Rise’ by Renee Watson & Ellen Hagan

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