Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on February 14, 2017
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Source: eARC via NetGalley
A timely and powerful story about a teen girl from a poor neighborhood striving for success, from acclaimed author Renée Watson.
Jade believes she must get out of her neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother says she has to take every opportunity. She has. She accepted a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and even Saturday morning test prep opportunities. But some opportunities feel more demeaning than helpful. Like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Except really, it’s for black girls. From “bad” neighborhoods.
But Jade doesn’t need support. And just because her mentor is black doesn’t mean she understands Jade. And maybe there are some things Jade could show these successful women about the real world and finding ways to make a real difference.
Friendships, race, privilege, identity—this compelling and thoughtful story explores the issues young women face.
Diversity Rating: 4 – This Is Our World
Racial-Ethnic: 5 (the vast majority of the cast is black)
Intersectionality: 5 (the book is 100% focused on the realities of black girlhood; Jade’s family is also extremely poor to the point of barely getting by)
To a class of creative writing students, half of whom were Those Guys and cited Hemingway as one of their favorite writers, I described Renee Watson’s 2016 novel This Side of Home as “a punch in the face–in a good way.” Saying I’m a big fan of what Watson writes? THAT WOULD BE AN UNDERSTATEMENT. But as much as I loved Watson’s debut, I think I love Piecing Me Together even more.
In a nutshell, Piecing Me Together is a vivid portrait of what life is like for a black girl in the 2010s. Jade is a brilliant collage artist and standout student who hopes to go overseas one day on a school trip, but because she’s poor and black, she’s assumed to be “at risk” and drafted into Woman to Woman, a mentoring group set up for “at-risk” girls. The massive scholarship to any Oregon college is the only reason Jade is willing to stick with it; that money is likely the only way she will be able to attend college.
Jade is a brilliant, memorable character whose observations are made more profound by Watson’s enchanting language. See: her being reduced to an “at-risk” girl in need of help because she’s poor and black even though her school record indicates she’s doing just fine. Woman to Woman isn’t addressing much of what she wants from them either; until she says something about wanting more practical experiences, group and mentor activities consist of going to a symphony performance or gathering at a rich woman’s house with fancy food. Her own mentor Maxine often fails to understand where Jade’s coming from because Maxine grew up rich.
Though not a character, Woman to Woman will stick with me for a long time as though it were one. It’s an advocacy and mentoring group set up by black women for black girls, but it initially fails them by failing to understand what the girls really need or want. Any group can fall into this pitfall and really underscores how important it is to listen to the people you want to help. If you don’t, you’re wasting your own resources and their time. Upon hearing Jade’s criticisms, Woman to Woman does what any good group would: they listen to her and make changes to better address problems in their target group’s lives.
One conflict in Jade’s life that really struck me: the difficult friendship she has with Sam, a white girl who’s just as poor as Jade. They bond over their shared poverty and ride public transportation to school every day, but when a store clerk insists Jade hand over her backpack if she wants to stay in the store, Sam insists Jade’s blackness had nothing to do with it. Jade then utters a quote that will surely resonate with anyone who isn’t white or white-passing:
“I don’t know what’s worse. Being mistreated because of the color of your skin, your size, or having to prove that it really happened.” (ARC, p. 135)
My family and I are all white as snow, but my family leans significantly more conservative versus my super liberal leanings. When I brought up voter suppression to my mother once, she dismissed it by saying that she personally had never felt her vote was suppressed. Even though she grew up in southern Georgia amidst desegregation and the civil rights movement, she couldn’t see past her own experience and understand what black people in her life went through. Jade and Sam’s fights and disagreements echoed exactly what I go through with my family.
Later on in the novel, a black girl is the victim of police brutality. This becomes another point of contention between Sam and Jade because Sam simply doesn’t get it. She doesn’t understand Jade’s fears of becoming the next victim and how unfortunately normal such incidences are. Even as it makes Jade afraid, it’s nothing new to her at the same time. It’s just another incident to add to an already-lengthy list of them.
Honestly, I could fill this entire review with beautiful passages and transcendent quotes instead of talking. Watson’s prose is something else entirely and led to me making highlights and bookmarking pages until I had approximately half the book marked up. Picking out just one or two as true standouts is almost impossible! White readers will come away from this having learned more about the experiences of teenage black girls; black readers will have a book that makes it clear someone does understand what they go through and they’re telling their stories.
Being a “good” book reviewer and trying to keep up on my review copies means I don’t have time for rereads, but Piecing Me Together is the book that made me wish I did. As soon as I turned the last page, I wanted to go back to the beginning and re-immerse myself in Jade’s life and Watson’s beautiful language. To make your social activism better, read this book. To make yourself a better person, read this book. If there’s one author I will immediately rec to someone who loves YA contemporary, Renee Watson is that author. Barely a month into 2017, I can easily declare this one of the best books of the year!