My family knows when I’m reading an especially spectacular book. How? Because I don’t do anything but read, I don’t say anything but how much I like the book, and I don’t take very long to finish it. Watch Us Rise was the first book that did this for me in a very long time.
I picked this up at the library a few weeks ago because Renee Watson is one of my favorite authors. Her books This Side of Home and Piecing Me Together are wonderful narratives that resonated with me. I was not previously familiar with Ellen Hagan, but after this book, I’m interested in discovering more of her work.
Watch Us Rise is the story of best friends Jasmine and Chelsea, self proclaimed art-ivists who aim to expose the ugly truth that their progressive school is not so progressive. They start a blog called Write Like a Girl to fight the system and create conversation.
From the summary, I was a bit concerned that the book would focus too much on activism and neglect a really solid story. But I was completely wrong. The story revolved around Jasmine and Chelsea’s change the world ways, but there was a healthy dose of real life too. Tragedy, friendship, love, and some family holiday drama permeated the narrative. I cried…a lot, not necessarily because the book was sad (although some moments were heart-wrenching) but because it was astonishingly beautiful. I felt seen in the pages.
I identified with Jasmine, feeling the joys and hardships of being a black girl in a white world, at times wanting to be seen and at other times yearning to be invisible. I identified with Chelsea, in desperately wanting to change the world, yet getting caught up in ideals and losing patience for those who don’t think the same.
It wasn’t just the characters, but the location was beautiful. I felt as if I lived in New York although I have yet to visit. I saw myself walking down the streets of Harlem perusing the street vendors wares. There was an immense love of New York’s diversity and culture in these pages that made me love New York like I lived there. In a Hamilton-esque way, I felt connected to the city and it’s story, some strange pride for Washington Heights washed over me and those accounts of dreams coming true in New York felt real.
But even more than all of that, the poems captivated me. I love poetry. And weaved through the prose were tons of poems: haikus, pantoums (one of my personal favorite forms), and sonnets. Poems with infectious rhythms, satisfying words, and unforgettable messages adorned the pages. There were references to poets I loved and introductions to poets I needed to know.
And art, accounts of artists who changed the world and changed my life. Artists who were censored because their work was life changing and world changing. As if poetry and art weren’t enough to satisfy my creative heart, the authors infused playlists every once in a while too! You can’t imagine how many notes I made for this book: people to Google, quotes to journal, blogs to read. It was a treasure trove of culture changing art just waiting for me to discover and remember.