All Amara wants for her birthday is to visit her father's family in New York CityHarlem, to be exact. She can't wait to finally meet her Grandpa Earl and cousins in person, and to stay in the brownstone where her father grew up. Maybe this will help her understand her familyand herselfin new way.
But New York City is not exactly what Amara thought it would be. It's crowded, with confusing subways, suffocating sidewalks, and her father is too busy with work to spend time with her and too angry to spend time with Grandpa Earl. As she explores, asks questions, and learns more and more about Harlem and about her father and his family history, she realizes how, in some ways more than others, she connects with him, her home, and her family.
Acclaim for Piecing Me Together
Newbery Honor Book
Coretta Scott King Author Award
Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Young Adult Finalist
A New York Public Library Best Book for Teens
A Chicago Public Library Best Book, Teen Fiction
An ALA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults
An NPR Best Book
A Kirkus Reviews' Best Teen Book
A Refinery29 Best Book
About the Author
RENÉE WATSON is the Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Author Award-winning author of the novels Piecing Me Together, This Side of Home, What Momma Left Me, Betty Before X, co-written with Ilyasah Shabazz, and two picture books: Harlem's Little Blackbird and A Place Where Hurricanes Happen. Renée is the founder of I, Too, Arts Collective, a nonprofit committed to nurturing underrepresented voices in the creative arts. She lives in New York City.
www.reneewatson.net; @harlemportland (Instagram); @reneewauthor (Twitter)
Read an Excerpt
New York City is no place for a little girl," Mom says. "I don't think Amara is ready to visit." She takes plates from the cabinet, getting ready for the dinner Dad is cooking.
I am sitting at the kitchen island, reading, sort of ... I have been on the same page for the past fifteen minutes because instead of reading I am listening to Mom and Dad's conversation.
I am irritated for a couple of reasons. One, because the "little girl" she is referring to is me — except I am not a little girl. Exactly two weeks and one day from today, I will be twelve years old. And besides, it's not like there aren't hundreds, actually thousands — maybe even hundreds of thousands — of kids who live in New York City. I asked if I could go for my birthday, to visit Dad's family, and it set off this long "discussion."
Mom says, "Kids who are born and raised in New York City is one thing. Kids from Oregon visiting is another." She keeps listing reasons why letting me visit New York is a bad idea. She says to Dad, "We don't even let Amara walk to school alone. How is she going to navigate a big city? Amara doesn't know anything about a place like New York. She's lived in the suburbs her whole life."
As if Dad doesn't know where I was born, where I live.
We live in Beaverton, Oregon, just a thirty-minute drive from Portland. Less than that if Dad is driving. Mom always says she loves Beaverton over Portland because no matter where you are, a park is just a short walk away. There are hiking trails and bike paths tucked throughout the city. When it's not too rainy, the three of us ride our bikes and explore new routes on weekends. I like living here. It's the only place I've ever called home. But I want to see other places. Go somewhere with more people, with more things to do.
I try to catch Dad's eyes. See if he will speak up for me and convince Mom to let me go to New York. But he is focused on cooking. He opens the sliding door and steps outside on the patio to check the food he's grilling. He grills even when it's cold outside. He says the covered deck is why he bought this house. I think it's his favorite place to be.
I watch him take the salmon off the grill, put the fillets on a plate, and squeeze lemon on each piece. As soon as he comes back inside, I try again. "Mom, you act like Dad isn't going to be there with me. It's not like I'd be going by myself," I remind her. "Plus, I'll finally get to meet my cousins and spend time with Aunt Tracey —"
"Sweetheart, you're not going. Okay?" She puts the plates in front of me and looks at Dad like she is trying to get him to back her up.
Dad puts another dirty dish into the sink. I know Mom will fuss about that later. Dad is the best cook ever, but he uses just about every bowl, plate, knife, spoon, and fork in the kitchen by the time the meal is prepared. He cooks a big family meal once a month because most of the time he is traveling for his job or too busy to come home early enough for dinner. And tomorrow morning Dad is leaving for LA, which means Mom and I will be eating takeout for the next few days.
Mom eyes all the dirty dishes in the sink. "Babe, you're going to have to wash those. You can't leave this mess for Hannah to clean."
"Don't we pay Hannah to clean the house?" Dad asks.
Mom lets out a sigh, and I know this means she has had enough with both me and Dad. I get up and take the plates over to set the table, the one in the kitchen. We mostly eat in here instead of the formal dining room. We only eat there on Thanksgiving or when guests are joining us. Right now, it's an extension of Mom's workroom. Her sketches, along with fashion magazines and swatches of fabric, are spread across the table. Mom designs dresses and sells them at her boutique in downtown Portland's Pearl District. It's called Amara's Closet, which I know sounds amazing to most people — especially my friends — I mean, none of them have a whole clothing line and store named after them, but since there's nothing in that boutique I'd actually wear, it's not that big a deal to me.
I'd much rather wear the clothes Dad gets for me. He's the vice president of sports marketing at Nike and oversees branding and special events like the annual All-Star basketball games and the launching of new shoes. Sometimes, Dad brings me shoes that aren't even in stores yet. But mostly, I just rotate my Air Jordan Retro collection. I have one through twelve, but my favorite is the AJ4. I get those every time they come out.
As Dad takes the pan of roasted potatoes out of the oven and brings it to the table, Mom says, "I just don't want her going to New York yet."
Here's another thing that's irritating about this conversation. Mom is talking about me like I'm not in the kitchen. Like she didn't just walk past me — her actual daughter — who can hear everything she's saying.
"Maybe when she's older," she says.
I clear my throat, "Like twelve?" I ask. "You've been asking what I want for my birthday — well, this is what I want. A trip to New York. Dad is going for the All-Star Game. Why can't I go with him?"
"He's going for work, Amara," Mom says.
Before I can object, Dad gives me a look telling me to let it go. He sprinkles a little salt into the bowl of broccoli and says, "Dinner's ready." We sit at the table, and Dad prays over the food. "We thank you, God, not only for this food, but for this family. Bless us, and keep us, and please —"
"Let me go to New York with Dad to meet Dad's side of the family," I blurt out.
Dad opens one eye, Mom opens both. We all say, "Amen."
Dad passes the plate of salmon first, then the potatoes, then the broccoli. I reach for the basket of homemade dinner rolls and pass it. I swallow my first bite and take a deep breath just as Mom says, "We're not going to talk about this all night, Amara."
How did she know I was going to say something else? I put down my fork. "Can I just say one more thing?" I ask.
Both Mom and Dad answer at the same time, Dad saying yes, Mom saying no. Mom gives in. "Go ahead."
"I just want to meet the family I've only seen in pictures," I say. "And you both keep saying that once the baby comes Dad won't be traveling as much, so I think I should go now."
At the mention of the baby, Mom touches her belly. Dad and Mom give each other a look.
I knew I'd get them with that. Bringing up the new addition to our family always gets them. Just about every other sentence out of their mouths begins with, "Well, you know, once the baby comes we're not going to be able to ..." and usually what they're not going to be able to do is something I love to do, so I'm thinking this little baby is already messing up my life and she is not even born yet.
Mom says, "Amara, the answer is no. You are not going to New York for your birthday, so you need to come up with something else you want to do." She drinks from her glass of water and then says, "And you can stop asking, okay?" She rubs her belly again, and I wonder about the little life inside her.
I haven't told anyone this, but I don't want Mom and Dad to have another baby. I feel bad for admitting it, especially after all the babies Mom was pregnant with and then lost. When I was younger, I really, really wanted a little brother or sister, but after so many times of wishing and hoping only to have no little brother or sister, I just stopped wanting one. But then, Mom and Dad told me they were expecting (again). I just said okay and walked away and I didn't wish or hope, or think of names, or talk to Mom's belly at all. But this time, the little baby inside Mom kept growing and growing, and in a month Mom is supposed to have my baby sister. Mom takes the last bite of her dinner roll and pushes her plate back. "Babe, that was so good. Nothing like fresh baked bread."
"Thanks. My mother's recipe," Dad says.
Grandma Grace died before I could meet her. I love it when Dad cooks from her recipes. Makes me feel like she is here with us, that she is giving us love. Thinking about her makes me think of New York again and how if I could just go to Harlem, I could learn more about Grandma Grace. If I could see the home my dad grew up in, I could stand in her kitchen. I eat another bite and then say, "Mom, what if we all go to New York? Maybe not for my birthday ... but what about after the baby is born?"
Dad laughs. "You have my persistence, that's for sure."
Mom shakes her head. "And you say that like it's a good thing."
"Now, let's not knock persistence. It got me a yes from you," Dad says. He kisses Mom on her cheek and smiles at me. "Your mom was not feeling me at all when we first met."
"It wasn't him that I wasn't feeling. It was his city," Mom says. "New York is dirty, crowded, either too hot or too cold, and ridiculously expensive."
"Hey, you're talking about my hometown."
"Sorry, honey, but you know I'm telling the truth." Mom turns to me, says, "Besides, Amara, I only went to New York for college and I knew once I graduated I'd be coming back to Oregon. I didn't want to get involved with someone who was going to try to make me stay."
"But little did she know I was ready for a change and wanted to leave the city," Dad says. "Plus my dream job was to work at Nike, so I had already looked into moving to Beaverton. Once I told her that, I had her attention. But I still had to convince her to go on a date with me."
Mom smiles. "He tried hard, too, Amara. Reciting me poems and everything."
"Poems? Dad reciting poems?"
Dad gets up from the table. "Okay, all right. Enough about me."
I take that to mean we can go back to talking about my trip to New York. I look at Mom and ask, "So is this your way of telling me that if I stay persistent and recite you a poem, then you'll let me go?"
Mom gives me that look, the one that says she's had enough and I better get myself together before I regret it. I don't get the look often. A few times she's given it to me when she's already told me two or three times to turn the TV off and get my homework done.
I let it go.
I get up, put my plate in the dishwasher, and excuse myself to my room. As I walk away Mom says, "Homework first."
"I know," I tell her.
On the way to my bedroom, I hear Mom say to Dad, "You love making me be the bad guy, huh? Now why you got that girl thinking she can go to Harlem with you? You haven't seen or talked to your father in about twelve years. You really think it's appropriate for Amara to be there when you finally do see him?"
My hand is on the doorknob, but I don't open the door. I stand real still so they don't know I'm in the hallway listening.
Dad says, "Going to Harlem doesn't mean I have to see my dad. I've been to New York several times in the past few years. They don't need to know when I'm back in the city."
"But I think for Amara the whole point is to meet your —"
"Leslie, not now. Please."
I go into my room, sit on my bed.
My father hasn't talked with Grandpa Earl in twelve years?
He's actually been in New York City and didn't go home? I know he's been for work, but still. How do you not talk to your father, and why didn't I know this?
Dad hasn't talked with Grandpa Earl, but I have. I talk to Grandpa Earl every Father's Day and on Thanksgiving and Christmas and on my birthday and his birthday. I've never really thought about it before, but now that I am remembering, every time I talk to Grandpa Earl it's Mom who calls me to the phone. When I am finished, I give the phone back to Mom. I think and think, but I can't remember a time when I saw or heard Dad on the phone with Grandpa Earl. He talks with Aunt Tracey a lot. She's been here, to Beaverton, to visit us a few times. Sometimes Dad sends shoes to my cousins, Nina and Ava, but he doesn't speak with Grandpa Earl.
I think maybe I've had it all wrong. Mom is not the one I need to convince about me taking a trip to Harlem. Dad is.CHAPTER 2
Mom knocks on my door an hour later. "Is your homework finished?" She comes inside.
"Yes," I say. I close my book, put it on the nightstand.
Mom sits on my bed, rubbing her stomach. "She's kicking. Want to feel?"
"That's okay," I answer. I do not want to feel a baby who may not actually be born. Mom is eight months pregnant now, and everyone says that means this baby is sure to come. But three times we decorated nurseries. Three times she told me, "You're going to have to get ready to be a big sister."
Three times it was a lie.
And she never, ever talked about it except to say, "It just wasn't meant to be."
Mom stands and goes over to my walk-in closet. She has hung bundles of lavender in the corners, and every time the door opens, my room smells like spring. She looks at my shelves and picks up the Jason Markk kit Dad bought me to clean my sneakers. "When I was your age an old toothbrush, detergent, and warm water did the trick. I guess this makes you a bona fide sneaker-head, huh?"
"Yep. Just like Dad."
Mom searches through the hanging clothes and goes to the end of the row. "Have you tried on the dresses I made for you?"
"They don't fit."
Mom gives me her I-Know-You're-Lying look. "You don't have to wear the dresses every day. They're for church," she says.
"Why can't we go to a church that lets women wear pants, like Titus's church?" I ask. Titus is my best friend. He lives around the corner. His dad works with my dad, and our families are together all the time. Whenever Dad and Big T — Titus Sr. — get together, all they talk about is how New York and Oregon are so different. Big T is from Harlem, like Dad, and they became friends when they were students at New York University. Big T starts just about every sentence with, "Well, in Harlem ..." Mostly he talks about missing black culture. He drives from Beaverton all the way to Portland because he wants to go to a black barbershop. He's always talking about how he misses black people, which makes me wonder why he moved to Oregon. Big T says if it weren't for Dad, he might not have graduated and would've never moved across the country to do what he loves, which is design shoes.
I give Mom my best reasons for why going to church with Titus's family would be way better than going to our church. "Besides being able to wear pants, their service is only an hour," I say.
Mom shakes her head. "How long the service is and what you can or can't wear is not important. I grew up in that church, and I like Pastor Franklin's preaching. Plus, wearing a dress once a week isn't going to hurt you," Mom says. She fans through the hanging clothes and picks out the two new dresses she made. One is a shirtdress with big pockets and looks casual enough to wear to school with leggings, but also appropriate for church, depending on what shoes I wear with it. I guess it's not so bad. It's better than the second dress, which has a busy print with at least five colors. It looks like the kind of dress that wrinkles if you do the tiniest movement, like raise your hand or bend over. It's the kind of dress that makes people say, "Oh, you're so beautiful," or "You're such a pretty girl." No one ever says that when I am wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
"I just think church shouldn't be all about what a person is wearing on the outside. It's what they believe on the inside," I say.
"And I agree," Mom tells me. "I also believe that what you look like on the outside is a reflection of who you are. And how you dress going anywhere — school, church, or even the mall for that matter — shows how much you respect yourself or a place. Dressing up for church is showing that you care about where you're going, that this one day out of the week is special enough for you not to wear your everyday clothes because you are going to honor God." Mom is always good with a comeback. "There's a time and place for everything. I don't expect you to wear a ball gown to a basketball game, just like I don't think it's appropriate to wear shorts in the sanctuary." Mom holds the dresses up in the air, toward the light, and looks them over. "Here. Humor me, at least." She hands me both dresses. "Try these on."
I change into the colorful one first, so that way when I tell her how much I don't like it but how much I like the other one, we'll end this fitting on a good note. Mom fusses over me, turning me around in circles so she can see me from different angles. She gently directs me to the full-length mirror in my closet. "See, this looks so good on you, Amara."
"But, Mom, I'm uncomfortable in it."
"Does it feel too tight?" she asks. "It doesn't look tight at all."
"No, it's not tight," I tell her. But it is suffocating me. "Mom, you know I don't like dresses."
"But you look so pretty in them," Mom says.
I look into the mirror with Mom behind me waiting for me to change my mind. I stay silent until she sighs and says, "Well, take it off."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Some Places More Than Others"
Copyright © 2019 Renée Watson.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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