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Sharon M. Draper Talent Spotlight

"They were the early threads of a quilt I didn't even know I was weaving."



Sharon M. Draper is a New York Times bestselling and multi-award-winning author as well as acclaimed educator. Some of her books include the soon-to-be-released Stella by Starlight [Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $16.99 hc], Panic [Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $9.99 pb], and Out of My Mind [Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $8.99 pb].

Q: You were recently a judge for the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Awards. What can you tell us about this process and your experience as a judge? Have you served as a judge for NBF or other book organizations before? If so, how do the experiences compare?


What an adventure! I was chair of the committee for Young Adult books, my first experience being a judge on such a large scale. Well over three hundred books arrived at my door from June until August. Boxes and boxes of books. The mailman and the UPS guy must have thought I was a crazy lady. But I got to read the very best books that were published for children and young adults in 2014. It was a glorious summer of snuggling with a good book, sipping lemonade, and gulping a world of amazing words and stories. I learned so much about myself as a reader and a writer. I am humbled by all their talent, and inspired by their imaginations.

Q: You’ve said that your newest book, Stella by Starlight, which is set to be released in January, was inspired by your muse – your grandmother – and her stories and experiences. How did your grandmother’s journal, given to you after she passed, transform you and inspire you to write this story?


When I was a little girl, we used to spend summers on my grandmother’s farm in North Carolina, where each night I sat quietly on the front porch and listened to the elders tell outrageous stories. They came to that porch weary from working all day, but left there energized. I loved the rhythm of their voices, the power of their laughter.

My father and grandmother were different people on those evenings—indulgent to me rather than strict—with Grandma sneaking me cookies and Daddy letting me stay up way past my bedtime. They were the early threads of a quilt I didn’t even know I was weaving.

I also found out, many years later, that my grandmother, when she was a little girl, had kept a secret journal of her hopes and dreams--a notebook she wrote outside, after dark, under the stars. I was given that journal many years ago, and I promised to write her story. I had no idea a story of my own would emerge from those summer evenings.

I blended my memories of those glorious tales with the passion of my grandmother’s hidden scribbles into the novel that became Stella by Starlight. Focusing on strength of family, power of community, and interspersed with music, storytelling, social commentary, and history, Stella by Starlight is my gift to young readers.

Q: What do you hope Stella by Starlight does for readers?


First of all, I want young people to love the story and cheer for Stella. If readers can identify with a character, the plot flows easily. Then I’d like for them to think about some of the issues in the book—some personal, like having difficulty in school, and others more social—like fear and injustice and courage. I would like for Stella by Starlight to become a starting point for lots of discussions. I’d like for young readers to feel the rhythms of a close community, to understand how the past reflects the present, to think about social injustice through storytelling and song. When they read Stella by Starlight, I want them to learn a larger truth about life and humanity, without ever knowing they have done so.

Q: Did receiving and getting to read this journal inspire you to keep a journal of your own?


Yes, I have a journal, and yes, it is my guide and personal place to share my thoughts and feelings and ideas and fears. My grandmother kept a journal, which amazed and awed me. A little girl living in the country with only a fifth grade education—she wrote in a journal just to please herself. My journal is mostly filled with words that I find amusing--descriptions of interesting people I meet (I could fill a book with people I see in airports!), scribbles, and thoughts about characters and ideas that may or may not develop. Stories grow within me for several years before they erupt into words onto paper. It’s a fluid process, full of surprises as a novel comes slowly to fruition. I think my grandmother inspired me long before I knew it—her spirit runs through me.

Q: What is a question students often ask you about writing and how do you answer?


They say: “I want to write a book. How do you do that? Can you help me?” I reply: “If you want to be a writer, then you must do that. Write. There is no secret formula. The rules your teacher gives you only really apply when you are editing it and making it perfect. The first and hardest part is getting your thoughts visible in front of you. Then comes the revising, which takes months, even years. Re-writing. Changing words and phrases. Refining. Deleting. Smoothing. Agonizing over the right word, the right phrase. Revision is the hardest and most painful part of writing.” Many times young people (and older ones as well) do not want to take the time to make it right. But the final result is worth it.

Q: What is a favorite experience about visiting schools and talking with kids?


I love visiting with children at their schools. I show up at a school in jeans and sneakers. I want them to feel comfortable with me. I talk to them. I make jokes. I let them ask questions—zillions and zillions of questions. I include them in the presentation, and invite them up on stage to act out parts of the novels. It becomes a shared experience and before they know it, they have learned about the joy of reading and writing.

If a presentation is didactic, kids turn you off. I never say things like, “Stay in school so you can succeed.” They already know that and have heard it many times. What I tell them instead is to find what they love to do and focus on that in their life. Success comes from passion, so first they must find what makes them happy, and then they are more likely to work towards that. I use myself as an example, showing that success is not always easy, or quick, but worth the journey if one finds joy along the way.

One young man told me: “You came to my school and I think you were really cool for an old person. I expected you to be boring, but you were fun."

Q: How and when did you realize you wanted to be an author?


When I was in third grade, I wrote something called “Clouds,” in which I described them as looking like bunnies, if I remember. That was NOT a life-altering moment, although I was very proud when it got posted on the school bulletin board.


Q: What were your favorite books when you were a child? What book(s) are you reading now?


I was a voracious reader as a child. I read at least ten books every week--the librarians knew me well! Because of the volume of books, I was able to read about other countries and cultures, which at least gave me a knowledge beyond the limited vision afforded me in books about my own country. My favorite book in the fourth grade was Caddie Woodlawn. The heroine was spunky and brave--qualities I admired.

Today, I still read dozens of books, not settling on any one author as my favorite. I always skim the first few pages before I buy a book, not to see what it's about, but to see how well it is written. I don't have time to read a thick book full of just plot. I need gentle nuances, poetic expressions, and powerful mastery of words. A good book should paint a picture and I should be able to see the colors in it. A good book should sing to me, and I should be able to hear each note. When I find one, I treasure it. So I've read a wide variety of authors who write well.

Q: What is a book you can’t wait to read?


I want to read the five books on the short list of the National Book Award adult titles. Redeployment by Phil Klay, An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

Q: Your books deal with powerful themes and intense situations. I imagine that you get quite a few letters from students who have found comfort and reassurance in your writing. What do you hear from your readers?



Q: Who has served as an inspiration for your career?


My parents. When I was a little girl, my parents saw me, and my brother and sister, as bright flames of possibility. They nurtured and shielded us with a protective glass dome so we could burn brightly without wind or cold to threaten us. My mother read to us constantly, so that by the time we started school, we were already avid readers. Mother would quiz us on spelling tests, and Daddy would check our math facts. My mother tutored me through eighth grade French without knowing any of it herself. It never even occurred to me not to do well, not to continue to shine.

Q: What was your first publication experience like?


I guess that “moment” came when I won the Ebony Magazine writing contest for a three-page short story called “One Small Torch.” But, because we cannot see the future, I didn’t know at the time it was a “breakthrough.” It was just a really cool, really awesome thing to be recognized for something I wrote. But it was the beginning of the conversation I started to have with myself, the conversation that says, “You can write—go for it!”

So my students, some of whom didn't like to read the assigned texts, were my inspirations to forge ahead. I wanted to write something that young people could read that would be contemporary and exciting, yet have a solid literary base for teachers to use. I didn't know I was going to write a trilogy. I wrote Tears of a Tiger, and it had so much success that I was asked to write a sequel, which is pretty difficult if your main character is dead, so I took the short story that started it all—the one that won the writing contest--and made it chapter one of Forged by Fire. Then came Darkness before Dawn, and I’m blessed to have just finished book number thirty one.

Q: What is your favorite quote?


“I have been in sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.” This is one of my favorite quotes, and I keep it mounted in a frame on my desk. It’s by Zora Neale Hurston, who is seriously my literary hero. She was so full of creative passion, and she paved the way for writers like me. Without Zora, who opened those literary doors, I would be nothing.

Q: What are you proudest of in your life?


Even though I’ve been to the White House and traveled all over the world, I think the biggest honors I’ve received have come from students—honestly. Young people who take the time to write to me and tell me how they used to hate reading, but because of reading one of my books, they are now avid readers. Here are some honest-to-goodness real quotes from kids:

Q: If you were asked to coalesce your work into one sentence, what might that be?


I try to write powerful, meaningful stories for young people and show them I understand the difficulties of growing up, and to let them know I care.

To get more information about Sharon M. Draper and her work, you can visit her website. For available copies of her work, please contact us. You can call us at (859) 781-0602, email us at bluemarble@fuse.net, or visit us at the store.



Author Sharon Draper: “We need to discuss race, and we can do it through great literature.”


If we were to list all of The New York Times bestselling author Sharon Draper’s many honors for her writing and teaching, it would take up your whole screen and you wouldn’t be able to see her thoughtful interview below. So, just to give you a taste...Draper has been honored as the National Teacher of the Year and is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, given to African American authors and illustrators of children’s books. She is the recipient of the Dean’s Award from Howard University School of Education, the Beacon of Light Humanitarian award, a Doctor of Laws Degree from Pepperdine University, and the Lifetime Achievement Award for adolescent literature by the National Council of Teachers of English. She has been honored at the White House six times and has represented the United States in Moscow at the Russian Book Festival.

You get the idea.

Draper is busy and brilliant, to say the least, and she loves to connect with teachers, parents, and young people. Lucky for Nashville: She’s speaking at Parnassus Books this Saturday, October 25, at 2 p.m. As a preview, here’s her conversation with our MUSING editor, Mary Laura Philpott:

How old were you when you first realized that words were your medium, that you were a writer deep-down? Do you have any really early memories of writing something and feeling empowered or excited by your own words?


SD: When I was in third grade I wrote something called “Clouds,” in which I described them as looking like bunnies, if I remember. That was NOT a life-altering moment, although I was very proud when it got posted on the school bulletin board. I remember writing assignments always being easy for me in English classes, and getting a 5 on my AP Writing exam. But that wasn’t life changing, either. Not yet. I remember my college professors telling me my scholarly writing was “too flowery.” (I had trouble writing boring papers.) I taught English Language Arts for 20 years, always encouraging my students to write well, but it had never occurred me to write anything myself. When a student challenged me to enter a writing contest, for some reason I actually sent something in. And it won. First prize out of thousands of entries. I got published in a national magazine. I think that was the “aha” moment. That was when it finally dawned on me that perhaps I might be good at writing.

You’ve had an amazing career, traveled so widely, and met so many influential, interesting people. Can you think of a time you felt totally starstruck or had an “I can’t believe this is happening” moment?


SD: Although it was really, really, really awesome to meet three Presidents, (can you say heart-pounding, lip-stuttering moments?), I think I was truly honored and humbled the first time I met Maya Angelou. I used to teach her words to my students, because she wasn’t in the literature book, but she should have been. She was a living legend, even back then. So when she came to town, one of my former students who was in charge of her appearance at the university remembered how I had lifted Ms. Angelou up for so many years. So my student invited me to the presentation, where I got to sit in the front row, in the VIP section! As Ms. Angelou recited her poetry, I was mumbling them along with her — word for word. Plus, I got invited to the private reception and I got to spend a few minutes with her and just chat. It was important to me because what I had done in the classroom so many years before had influenced that student, who brought it full circle back to me. That is the essence of teaching.

Parents often struggle with how much to discuss issues of race (as well as gender and other natural differences) with children. Does it help kids grow up to be “race-blind” if we don’t emphasize race, or should we be diving into these issues with our kids — and if so, how? We’d love your perspective on how literature in general (and your work, specifically) helps stoke productive, thoughtful discussion among kids, parents, and teachers.


SD: Race is a reality in today’s world. We cannot be blind to it. The dream of Martin Luther King has not yet been fulfilled. When some parents have to teach their boys how to act when confronted by police, and others do not, that’s a problem. When some people are treated differently because of their race or their heritage, that’s a problem.

As I look back on my childhood, I remember being an avid reader, and finally noticing that almost none of the books I loved included characters that looked like me. As I got older I wondered about that, and I exulted in the discoveries of the writings of African-Americans when I did a self-designed, special-studies project in my senior year. It should not have taken 21 years for me to find these writers, who had been there all along.

When I write novels, I’m fully aware of who my readers are (kids of ALL races) and what issues these readers might face, simply by being teenagers. So I try to be inclusive in character descriptions, sometimes making it very clear the race of the character, sometimes not. The issue that character faces, and how that particular fifteen-year old deals with it is what draws a reader into a book. When those readers learn, generally without knowing it, a larger truth about life and humanity, I have succeeded.

For example, the main character in Copper Sun is an enslaved teenager from Ghana in 1738. How she faces those challenges and how I pull my readers into her life and her pain makes the book powerful. They close the book never realizing they have learned about slavery and history and global ethics. They just know they will never forget Amari. So yes, we need to discuss race, and we can do it through great literature. Ideas resound and discussion makes us all rise to the thoughts of others.


You write about pretty difficult subjects. What draws you to that type of material?


SD: Sometimes I get letters from young people or their teachers who want to know why I write about such powerful subjects — like abuse or suicide. I think that difficult or controversial subjects should be handled with skill and delicacy. It is possible to describe a horrible situation, such as child abuse, without using graphic details. Such subjects dealt with in this manner can then be discussed intelligently because it is the ideas and thoughts we want young readers to share, not the experience itself.

We are all attracted to tragedy. That’s why soap operas and sad movies are so popular. I think there’s something within each of us that wants to look at tragedy from the outside so that we don’t have to experience it personally. The other difficult issues or social problems I deal with are very real in the lives of many readers. We don’t live in a world of sugarplum fairies and happily ever after. Perhaps reading about the difficulties of others will act like armor and protect my readers from the personal tragedies in their own lives.

tears of a tigerMany of the letters I receive from students are very touching. Sometimes they tell me that reading one of the books changed their lives. I had a student tell me she called the child abuse hotline that is printed in the back of Forged by Fire. She said, “I read your book. I called that number. You saved my life.” I still get chill bumps when I think of that. Another student wrote that he was depressed and was thinking of taking his life, but after reading Tears of a Tiger, he decided to live. I counseled him to talk to someone he trusted, and he wrote me back that he had. Another student said she was reading Tears of a Tiger in class and that weekend some of her friends were drinking at a party. She thought about BJ in the book (who doesn’t drink), so she called her mother to come and pick her up. Her friends were killed that night in an automobile accident. It’s an awesome responsibility to have so much response to what I’ve written. That’s why I try so hard to make every single book ring true and honest and why I try to be available to my readers.

As I travel around the country and talk to high school students, I’m overwhelmed by their strength and resilience, by their dreams for their future. Books should reflect their struggles and mirror their aspirations. That is what I strive to do.

Wonderful. OK, a few more quick questions… What do you enjoy most about browsing in a bookstore?


SD: I love the smell of books, the feel of the binding, the peacefulness of browsing. I like the fact I can grab two or three books, find a comfy chair, and lose myself in someone else’s words. Bookstores make me happy.

Last book you read?


SD: Two hundred and seventy-four books for the National Book Awards this summer! A reader and writer’s dream adventure. Best one on the list? I can’t tell you. The award has not yet been announced. But it’s goooood!

Last book you gave as a gift?


SD: Wrapped in Rainbows – The Biography of Zora Neal Hurston, by Valerie Boyd. Zora is my literary hero. She was so full of creative passion, and she paved the way for writers like me. Without Zora, who opened those literary doors, I would be nothing.

Next book on your to-read stack?


SD: I like the works of Diane McKinney-Whetstone. I feel like one of my student readers as I’m waiting for her to publish her next novel. Hurry, Diane! I’m thirsty for the next one!

Thank you — and see you soon!


SD: Thanks for such thoughtful, meaningful queries. These are some of the BEST questions I’ve ever been asked. And I’ve been asked a lot!



I Was That Little Girl Who Went to the Library Every Single Saturday: A Conversation with Sharon Draper


This past fall, author Sharon Draper’s novel, Out of My Mind, was Loudoun County Public Library’s pick for their 1 Book, 1 Community book. As part of the program, Draper visited the area and did an author chat at a local middle school. The story of a young girl with a severe disability touched a lot of readers, young and old(er). Below is an interview Christyna Hunter did for Public Libraries via e-mail with Draper on December 1, 2014.

Public Libraries: Your book, Out of My Mind, came out in 2010. Have you been surprised by the reaction to it?

Sharon Draper: Out of My Mind has been blessed from the first day it came out. It seems to touch the hearts and minds of people. I received letters from parents and students and grandparents and caregivers and lots of young people who, like Melody, face the world with many challenges. I’ve also received many letters from students in other countries, as the book has been translated into I think ten different languages now. Yes, the book is blessed. It changes the way we as humans look at each other.

PL: You have visited many schools and public libraries, including my own (LCPL) to discuss Out of My Mind. What has been your experience doing this? Have young readers surprised or entertained you with questions during your visits?

SD: I love visiting schools and libraries! I was that little girl who went to the library every single Saturday, who checked out ten books at a time because I just couldn’t get enough. So I always feel at home in any library.

And since I was a teacher I always like returning to schools because I can interact with the students and teachers. I show up at a school in jeans and sneakers. I talk to them. I make jokes. I let them ask questions—zillions and zillions of questions. And I listen to them. I observe them—what they’re wearing, what shoes are cool, what hairstyles are in, what words and phrases and music they like. Then I try to incorporate their essence into each story. I make sure lots of real teenagers read sections of a new novel before I release it to them. Their opinion is essential to the success of the book.

PL: You must be excited for your new book, Stella by Starlight, to come out in January 2015. Please tell us about it. What inspired it?

SD: When I was a little girl, we used to spend summers on my grandmother’s farm in North Carolina, where each night I sat quietly on the front porch and listened to the elders tell outrageous stories. They came to that porch weary from working all day, but left there energized. I loved the rhythm of their voices, the power of their laughter.

My father and grandmother were different people on those evenings—indulgent to me rather than strict—with Grandma sneaking me cookies and Daddy letting me stay up way past my bedtime. They were the early threads of a quilt I didn’t even know I was weaving.

I also found out, many years later, that my grandmother, when she was a little girl, had kept a secret journal of her hopes and dreams–a notebook she wrote outside, after dark, under the stars. I was given that journal many years ago, and I promised to write her story. I had no idea a story of my own would emerge from those summer evenings.

I blended my memories of those glorious tales with the passion of my grandmother’s hidden scribbles into the novel that became Stella by Starlight. Focusing on strength of family, power of community, and interspersed with music, storytelling, social commentary, and history, Stella by Starlight is my gift to young readers.

PL: How is Stella’s story different than Melody’s in Out of My Mind?

SD: Although they are both eleven-year-old girls, Stella is very different from Melody. Stella lives in 1932 in a community filled with lots more love than money, and also quite a bit of danger. She struggles in school with writing and reading, and how to express her thoughts on paper. Her journey of discovery becomes the story—the discovery of evil, the strength of family, and the power of the written word. Like my grandmother did so many years ago when she was a child, Stella writes in a journal as well. Her story brims with courage, compassion, creativity, and resilience.

PL: Are there any lessons you hope readers will get from this newest novel?

SD: I would like for Stella by Starlight to become a starting point for lots of discussions. I’d like for young readers to feel the rhythms of a close community, to understand how the past reflects the present, to think about social injustice through storytelling and song. When they read Stella by Starlight, I want them to learn a larger truth about life and humanity, without ever knowing they have done so.

Thanks so much to Sharon Draper for taking the time to do this interview. Also, learn more about the author and her work at http://sharondraper.com/.