Top photo: Valerie Byrd Fort, Cearra Harris, Elizabeth Hartnett, Renée Watson and Nicole Cooke
The fourth annual Augusta Baker Lecture was held at Richland Library Main on April 21. Critically acclaimed author Renée Watson read excerpts of her writing and discussed her work with Nicole Cooke, the Augusta Baker Endowed Chair in the School of Information Science at USC.
“Our Baker Lecture with Renée Watson exceeded all expectations! Her warmth, wisdom, and advocacy contributed perfectly to Mrs. Baker’s legacy,” said Cooke.
Many of Watson's books are inspired by her experiences growing up as a Black girl in the Pacific Northwest. Her poetry and fiction center around the experiences of Black girls and explore themes of home, identity, body image, and the intersections of race, class, and gender.
Among her best-known works are Ways to Make Sunshine, Some Places More Than Others, and This Side of Home. Watson received the Coretta Scott King Award and the Newbery Honor for her 2017 novel Piecing Me Together. Her newest book, Maya's Song, won both the Coretta Scott King Award and the Newbery Honor for 2023.
“We have Born on the Water up here, which was cowritten with Nikole Hannah-Jones, and when this book came out, I was in the South Carolina Center for Community Literacy with my dear friends and colleagues,” explained Cooke.
“Liz came to the table and said, ‘Oh, my God, how beautiful is this book!’ And it was right then and there that we decided to have Renée come and be the next Baker lecturer.”
Having Watson, a New York Times best-selling author, for this edition of the Augusta Baker lecture was poignant because it was the first time the event has been held in-person. As was the case with many other events, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the first three editions to be held virtually.
Watson’s work embodies the ideals that Augusta Baker espoused, and she was an ideal speaker for this first in-person event.
“I am honored to be given the opportunity to share with you and be with you this evening, especially because of the woman whose name we are honoring tonight. And whose essence is the very reason I am here as an author,” said Watson.
“And it just feels like a very special full circle moment to be here connected to this woman who didn’t know me, didn’t know my name, but who I believe saw me coming in that way that our ancestors often do.”
Asale Mfomboutmoun, a local fifth grader, attended Watson’s lecture with her parents and siblings. She brought a copy of Ways to Make Sunshine from the Ryan Hart series.
“I just discovered her books really, because my librarian at school gave me this book, and she gave me the information for the program.”
Mfomboutmoun stood up from her seat in the audience to ask Watson about the possibility of her writing a book about middle school.
Watson’s response? “Ryan’s going off to middle school, but I’m not continuing the series, so I guess I’ve got to write something for you now.”
The annual lecture honors Augusta Braxton Baker, a renowned children’s librarian and storyteller who served as USC’s storyteller-in-residence from 1980 to 1994. The first African American Director of Children’s Services in the New York Public Library system, Baker was instrumental in diversifying and modifying children’s literature to better serve its readers.