Review | Watch Us Rise, Renee Watson and Ellen Hagan

40025175Watch Us Rise is a call to action to teenage girls everywhere to stand up, speak their minds, and fight to make their voices heard. It tells the story of Jasmine and Chelsea, who start a women’s rights club at their high school and write blog posts that resonate with other students. When the principal shuts them down for causing discord amongst students, Jasmine and Chelsea rally their friends, women teachers and women in their community to fight for their club’s right to exist.

It’s the kind of book that’ll speak to teenage girls who have something to say and feel frustrated by all the barriers in their way. The story will also hopefully inspire girls who feel silenced by those in authority to speak up and find allies within their own communities. At a time when some of the most vocal figures on social media are teenagers, Watch Us Rise is a catalyst that reminds readers of all ages that we have the right and the obligation to speak our truth.

The novel does get a bit heavy-handed at times, but Jasmine’s story fleshes it out and makes these characters feel real. She’s dealing with her father’s cancer, and with larger issues like racism and fatphobia. One of the plot threads that resonated the most with me was how even Chelsea, who is Jasmine’s best friend, had no idea that most of the clothes in their favourite shop were too small for Jasmine. This comes to a head in a big way near the end, and is a compelling reminder that even the most ‘woke’ people and the most caring friends can fail to recognize their own experiences of privilege.

Chelsea was a bit harder for me to relate to, if only because her activism at times feels performative. For example, she refuses to wish her Catholic grandmother a Merry Christmas because she wants to honour other holidays like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but she knows nothing of these holidays except what she reads on Wikipedia. Or she goes for a walk around the block, and complains about every single advertisement for being sexist. Other characters do call her out for some of what she does, but with the exception of Jasmine calling out Chelsea’s thin privilege, the story seems to set up most of the other characters’ reactions as wrong.

Her activism also sometimes feels reductionist, like she sees everything in black and white, with no room for nuance. Chelsea’s main beef is with what she calls the “princess industrial complex,” and how women are expected to just be pretty and wait for Prince Charming. While I agree that media raises unrealistic expectations of women’s looks and limiting notions of women’s roles, I admit sympathizing with the mean girl characters who wore princess outfits and were accused of bullying. The story sets it up so the mean girl characters were indeed targeting Chelsea and Jasmine’s blog posts, but I’m a bit tired of people policing how girls should behave, and that includes people like Chelsea who think wanting to be a princess is bad, full stop.

That being said, the book isn’t written for me necessarily, but for teenage girls. And I can certainly remember how fulsomely I threw myself into my beliefs when I was a teen. One of my favourite quotes in high school was, “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.” So, to be completely fair, I may have been a lot more like Chelsea than I realized as I was reading this. (Interestingly, that favourite quote of mine is often attributed to a man, Voltaire, but in actuality was written by a woman, Beatrice Evelyn Hall. Chelsea and teenage me would likely have both been overwhelmed with fury at that injustice.)

So while adult me feels like telling Chelsea to chill out, teenage me would have likely been right there with her, feeling inspired to go forth and make some tangible change in my own community. And that’s exactly the kind of reader whom I hope discovers Watch Us Rise. I hope that readers, and particularly younger ones, take heart in how much Jasmine and Chelsea are able to accomplish with what really began as just a couple of blog posts.

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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