Piecing Me Together is a 2017 YA novel, a Newbery Honor book and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award. Jade, a teenager from Portland, Oregon, tells her story of being poor, black and on scholarship to prestigious St. Francis school on other side of town. Jade is an excellent student and an artist who has much to offer and who is eager to break out of her neighborhood. As she navigates two worlds — the neighborhood called the New Columbia and the world of mostly white privilege at St Francis — Jade must learn to deal with obstacles expected and unexpected if she is to prove that she is someone who can help others and not just be the object of other people’s good works.
The novel opens with Jade preparing for her first day of junior year at St. Francis. Her single mother is preparing to go to work and Jade is half dreading school. It isn’t that she can’t handle the work. She is an excellent student and even tutors her classmates in Spanish, her favorite class. Jade is alone at St. Francis; she is one of the few students of color and is not rich like the other kids. They don’t pick on Jade, but they also don’t go out of their way to include her, nor do they understand what Jade’s life is like. They only know the stereotypes that most people apply to the New Columbia — crime, poverty, and mostly black people. Jade would rather attend the local public high school with her best friend LeeLee, but a scholarship to St. Francis plus the chance to study and volunteer abroad that St. Francis offers are too much to pass up. Jade wants to travel and use her knowledge of Spanish to help others, and she hopes to attend college one day. Her first day of junior year, however, will offer two new surprises. First, another girl attending St. Francis gets on the bus a few stops away from her house. Second, guidance counselor Mrs. Parker asks to see Jade about an opportunity.
Thus Jade’s world starting this new school year is already about to be quite different. The new girl, Sam, is white but from a part of town that is considered only slightly better than Jade’s. The two girls hit it off and become good friends. The “opportunity”, however, is something Jade did not expect and isn’t sure she wants. Her hope had been that Mrs. Parker was going to tell her that she was nominated to travel abroad. Instead, Jade learns that Mrs. Parker has nominated her to participate in the Woman to Woman program, which pairs African American girls with mentors for monthly outings to places like the art museum and symphony. Jade questions why Mrs. Parker thinks she needs a mentor and gets an uncomfortable response: “We want to be as proactive as possible, and you know, well, statistics tell us that young people with your set of circumstances are, well, at risk for certain things, and we’d like to help you navigate through those circumstances.”
Jade’s inclination is not to participate in Woman to Woman until she hears that upon completion of the two-year program, she will get a scholarship to college. Moreover, Jade’s mentor will be a young woman who is an alum of St. Francis, Maxine Winters.
Jade’s relationships with Maxine and Sam are central to the story, and Renee Watson makes these two characters both charming and flawed. These are people who sometimes screw up but who remain worthwhile. Each one brings her own baggage into her relationship with Jade, and that makes for some interesting conflict and discussion. One of the things Jade must learn is to talk about uncomfortable topics and explain her feelings. I think many teenagers and adults can understand her reluctance to do so, but as Jade learns, you have to use your voice and your words if you want to help others and yourself.
Maxine and Sam are going to have great impact on Jade and challenge her to stick with things and people who have let her down or disappointed her, as well as to advocate for herself and her community. Renee Watson, through her plot and characters, illuminates the racism and code switching the Jade has to negotiate, and she gives her characters the chance to make mistakes and grow. A sub-plot about police brutality toward a teenaged black girl is not only reflective of modern reality but a way for Jade to connect her two worlds and use her voice and art to really be seen and to help.
I loved this novel. It’s a great story that takes on challenging subject matter and through its characters shows us how we might better understand one another by listening and recognizing the abilities of those whom we assume need our “help” and “opportunities.” As someone who attended a school like St. Francis, I can’t help but think now of the chances I missed to get to know students unlike me, and to wonder how ignorant I was of the circumstances of their lives. Piecing Me Together would be a great choice for a book club and might spark some interesting discussion if you read it with your teens.