August 2, 2019

Adjunct Professor Ellen Hagan Teams Up With Award-Winning Author Renée Watson to Tackle Social Injustice in Coming-of-Age Novel

by Choya Randolph, MFA '18

Ellen Hagan, adjunct professor (right) and co-author Renée Watson read from their novel Watch Us Rise.

Ellen Hagan, adjunct professor, has co-led Adelphi’s Alice Hoffman Young Writers Retreat for high school students every July for the past 17 years. But Hagan is active outside of her work at Adelphi. She’s an educator, performer, author of two poetry collections, and now an author of a young-adult novel.

About 15 years ago, she was teaching writing workshops in New York City with Renée Watson, a New York Times-bestselling author who won the Coretta Scott King Award and Newbery honor for her young-adult novel Piecing Me Together.

Although they come from different backgrounds—Watson is from Oregon and Hagan from Kentucky—they share a love of writing and social justice.

When Watson suggested they write a book together, Hagan, who is a published poet, immediately thought it was a great idea. The duo knew exactly what kind of story they wanted to share: one about female friendship and empowerment. After months of collaborating and writing chapters back to back, Watson and Hagan published their young-adult novel Watch Us Rise in February 2019.

“We wanted to write about young women,” said Hagan. “[We wanted to address] how the world sees them as women and how they push back to that.”

Watch Us Rise follows the lives of two high school juniors, Chelsea and Jasmine, who are on a mission to create a Women’s Rights Club after being treated unfairly at their New York high school. Jasmine is a plus-sized black student who faces racist stereotypes in her after-school theater club. Chelsea is a white feminist who receives backlash for wanting to explore diverse poets in her after-school poetry club. Required to be in an after-school club, the two best friends create their own club and start a blog, which gains positive attention but attracts internet trolls. They juggle the hardships of high school, such as body image, family, love interests, their blog and more, while trying to rise together to be heard.

The narrative is a back-and-forth perspective between Chelsea and Jasmine that incorporates poetry and essays written by the characters. Watson wrote chapters from Jasmine’s perspective while Hagan did the same for Chelsea. Though writing for different characters, the two would write in the same room and collaborate closely to make sure their characters were authentic.

“Writing can be an isolating process but…we wrote all of the book and did edits in the same room,” said Hagan, adding, “We had a lot of fun doing it…we were thinking about young people and making sure their voices sound real.”

The book has received acclaim from New York Times-bestselling authors such as Laurie Halse Anderson, Julie Murphy and Brendan Kiely. It also received appreciation from several students and teachers who Hagan and Watson met firsthand. “They were thankful,” said Hagan, who mentioned students telling her that the book spoke to them in many ways about their own struggles with feminism, beauty and sexism.

Hagan is the author of two poetry collections: Crowned and Hemisphere. Her poems and essays have been published in Underwired MagazineShe Walks in BeautyHuizache, Small Batch and Southern SinBook of Questions, a middle-grade novel in verse following seventh-grader Beatrice Miller, is scheduled for publication in 2021.

Watson will also publish a middle-grade book in September titled Some Places More Than Others that follows middle-school student Amara’s journey to learn more about where she came from.

“I’d love to collaborate with Renée again,” said Hagan. “Hopefully young people will see the complications that Chelsea and Jasmine have. They’re not perfect but they have a lot of energy and love for each other.”


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