Q&A with Renée Watson, author of Black Girl You Are Atlas
April 16, 2024

Behind the Mic with Renée Watson

Penguin with Headphones By Penguin Random House Audio

In her semi-autobiographical collection of poems Black Girl You Are Atlas, author Renée Watson uses a tapestry of poetic styles to encourage young readers to embrace their future. We recently caught up with Renée to learn more about this moving collection, and her experience recording poetry as an audiobook. Plus, listen to a clip of Renée reading below, and prepare to get lyrically inspired.

Penguin Random House Audio: Thank you for sitting down with us to talk about Black Girl You Are Atlas! Before we dive in, could you tell us a little about the book?

Renée Watson: In Black Girl You Are Atlas, I share my experience growing up as a young Black girl in the Pacific Northwest at the intersections of race, class, and gender. These poems are a celebration of Black girlhood; it’s my love letter to Black girls and women.

PRH Audio: You’re no stranger to the audio recording booth, having narrated your Newbery Honor book Piecing Me Together, among other projects. Was there anything that surprised you about recording Black Girl You Are Atlas that was different from your other experiences?

Renée: Recording this audiobook was very special for me because my early days of sharing work was at open mic nights, where I read poetry and honed my performance skills. I love live music, live theater, and live readings, so I truly enjoyed this process. The biggest difference between this recording and my other audiobooks is that I got to experiment with tone, voice, and pacing in a way that I couldn’t do with text in a novel. Each poem has a different vibe, so I tried to be intentional about the sound and feeling of each reading.

PRH Audio: Somewhat related, is there something specific you’re excited for listeners to hear in this recording, or a moment that was particularly gratifying to record?

Renée: The most gratifying poem to record was “Underbelly.” I wanted listeners to have an entirely different experience listening to this poem than any of the others. List poems are challenging to read out loud—they look great on the page but hearing it can sound dry and uninspiring. I wanted to make sure “Underbelly” didn’t sound like I was just reading a grocery list. I played around a bit until I found the rhythm and emphasis that felt right.

PRH Audio: Now, to sate our behind-the-scenes curiosity: did you bring anything with you into the studio that you couldn’t do without?

Renée: I made sure I wore a ring that’s very special to me. It holds my mother’s birthstone. She passed away in 2021 and my sisters and I all have this matching ring. Every time I wear it, I feel like I am carrying her with me. It was important to feel her love and strength in the studio. She was my biggest supporter and listened to every poem and story I wrote when I was a child, scribbling verses in my journal. She would be so proud of this collection.

PRH Audio: It’s April, National Poetry Month, so we can’t resist asking: as a poet, are you doing anything special to celebrate?

Renée: I’m challenging myself to write a poem a day. It’s a 30-day challenge many poets do every year. I’m not pressuring myself to write anything “good,” but I’m looking forward to starting some new work and seeing what resonates.

PRH Audio: Last but not least, since we’re all listening fans here—what is the last great thing you listened to?

Renée: The last great thing I listened to was Act II: Cowboy Carter by Beyoncé. I am so inspired by her creativity. I love that she pushes herself to do what she hasn’t done before and that she acknowledges all parts of who she is and where she’s from. To me, the best art makes you want to go create your own. That’s what Beyoncé’s latest projects have done for me.

Listen to a clip of Renée Watson reading Black Girl You Are Atlas: