A gutsy girl in Portland

Books

When Renée Watson read her first Ramona Quimby book as a child, she was startled by where Beverly Cleary’s beloved heroine lived: Klickitat Street was just around the corner from Watson’s aunt’s home in Portland, Oregon. “I was so in awe that a character in a book could live in my city and in a neighborhood that I was very familiar with,” Watson remembers. “It was empowering. I didn’t know how to articulate that as a child except to say, ‘I know where she lives.’” From that moment on, whenever Watson visited her aunt, it became a running joke to say, “Ramona is your neighbor.”

Now, as an adult writing for young people, Watson divides her time between Portland and New York. Ways to Build Dreams (Bloomsbury, $17.99, 9781547610181) is the fourth and likely final installment in her middle grade series about Ryan Hart, a lively, inquisitive Black girl who lives in Portland, just like Ramona Quimby. “I see the power in representation,” Watson says, speaking from her Harlem home. “We say that a lot when it comes to race, but I also think where people live and the names of places and the histories of places matter too.”

“The Ryan Hart series is in many ways a love letter to Portland,” Watson continues. “Portland is the perfect balance of city and nature, and I really wanted to highlight that. I’ve done a lot of work critiquing Portland and talking about some of its challenging, harmful issues, but there’s also so much to love.” For instance, in Ways to Build Dreams, Ryan and her family take a day trip driving along the Columbia River, with stops at Latourell Falls and Vista House at Crown Point. Ryan also attends Vernon Elementary, the school Watson attended in real life. “I was trying to model the series after [Beverly Cleary] in that same way of actually naming real places in the city so that young people in Portland could have an anchor and really see their city represented.” (She also features her hometown in several books for older readers, such as Piecing Me Together, which received a Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott King Award).

Watson remembers that she loved reading about Ramona because “she is not perfect and has flaws and can throw tantrums and feel all of her emotions. At the time, that just felt so freeing because there weren’t a lot of girl characters who could be as bold, feisty and human.” She loosely based Ryan’s personality on that of her goddaughter, who is now 15—and also named Ryan Hart. “In every book I write, the main character’s name is intentional,” Watson notes. “I was just thinking of Ryan as being a more traditional male name and was going to build off of it. But then, as I looked into what her name means, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, it is just so perfect.’” Ryan means “little king” in Gaelic, and that connotation has become an anchor for every book. “I wanted to make sure that I’m constantly bringing the reader back to this notion of living up to your name or to what your loved ones wish for you,” Watson explains.

While the character named Ryan is an active kid who rides her bike and gets in water balloon fights, Watson notes: “I was not that girl. If we were going to the park, I would be the one who would bring my book with me or my journal, and I would sit under the tree and write poems or read while my friends were playing. I was a quiet and very creative child—very introspective.” Still, Ryan’s family dynamics and adventures, while fictional, are inspired by Watson’s own childhood.

During middle school, Watson was bused to a white school on the other side of town, an experience she described in a moving 1995 essay, “Black Like Me.” One day, her seventh grade science teacher chastised the class for failing a test on which Watson got an A, saying, “And this is why I am so disappointed in all of you. You let Renée Watson come all the way over here from northeast Portland and get a better grade than you in science!” When Watson later pondered that painful moment, she wondered, “What if she had allowed space in her narrative for black children from northeast Portland to be capable of meeting high expectations, of achieving academic success? What if she really saw me?”

Watson answers that question in many ways with the Ryan Hart books, filling them with moments of Black joy and achievement. Ways to Build Dreams begins with Ryan and her classmates working on a group history project about Beatrice Morrow Cannady, a community activist and educator, and the owner of Oregon’s largest Black newspaper—a story Watson had been wanting to explore for some time.

While Watson enjoyed reading about Ramona Quimby, she saw more of a reflection of herself in the poetry of Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni and Gwendolyn Brooks: “Those poets raised me.” She adds that Sandra Cisneros’ novel The House on Mango Street (which is about a Latina girl growing up in Chicago) gave her “permission to write about home in the way that home was for me—a Black neighborhood, Black music, the food, all of that.” She adds, “I’m constantly trying to show young people in my books, ‘Hey, I see you and I know what you are capable of.’”

Watson’s goal is to provide “a nuanced telling of the Black community.” With Ryan Hart, she “leans into the joy more so than the pain.”

“So I do have these cultural moments, but they’re very much tied into these slices of the everydayness of being a Black girl in a city like Portland. . . . Because really, that was my childhood. Yes, there were hardships, but mostly there were family dinners and cookouts and neighbors looking out for me and teachers who loved me. We didn’t have a whole lot of money, but we had a whole lot of love.”

Some of Watson’s favorite scenes occur when Ryan’s grandmother washes and fixes her hair. “In Black culture, it really is a big deal because there’s so much conversation around our hair,” she says. “I wanted to highlight different hairstyles throughout the series, and normalize her getting her hair done and the way in which we do it. Those times I remember as a child were so sacred because you’re spending a lot of time with that person. You have conversations that you might not have [when facing each other]. [These scenes] became such an anchor in each book, where that’s really a breakthrough moment for Ryan. Usually, she’s telling Grandma about something that’s happening that’s not so great, and Grandma gives her some wisdom.”

Watson has always known that the series would end with Ryan graduating from fifth grade, which she does in Ways to Build Dreams. Still, she can’t help being a little sad to have finished the final installment.

Might we see Ryan again, perhaps in books focused on her siblings, Ray or Rose?

“Oh, I’ve never thought about that,” Watson says. “That’s a very good thing to think about.”

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