Thanks to a smart-alecky student who sat in the back row of her classroom, Sharon M. Draper went from teacher to award-winning writer. Of course, there were other factors: a lifelong love of reading, plus years of hard work and outstanding scholarship, for starters.
But as Draper tells BookPage from her Cincinnati home, that student’s challenge—“Why don’t you write something?”—led her to an entirely new career.
Further inspired after winning an Ebony magazine short-story contest and receiving a lovely letter from author Alex Haley, Draper began writing longhand while she served as a study-hall monitor. “I got 24 rejection letters in a row,” she recalls. “And the very last letter was a ‘yes’ from Simon & Schuster.”
It’s been 20 years and 25 books since that yes for 1994’s Tears of a Tiger, which won Draper her first Coretta Scott King Award. Since then, her accolades have been many: National Teacher of the Year, five-time Coretta Scott King Award winner and New York Times best-selling author. She’s been honored at the White House no fewer than six times.
Draper, who retired from teaching in 2000 to write full time and to speak at schools, book festivals and other events, takes readers to 1932 North Carolina in her new novel, Stella by Starlight.
Ten-year-old Stella, her parents and her brother Jojo live in Bumblebee, a tiny town united by hardscrabble life in the Jim Crow South. There’s love and laughter, but, Stella observes, “Every Negro family in Bumblebee knew the unwritten rules—they had to take care of their own problems and take care of one another. Help from the white community was neither expected nor considered. It was as it always had been.”
One night, Stella and Jojo realize it’s not just the bright stars that are casting a glow outside; the Ku Klux Klan is burning a wooden cross, sending an eerie red light flickering through the trees. Draper skillfully builds suspense around this frightening event and subsequent unrest which, while handled peacefully by the black community, is still dangerous to them and the few white townspeople who aren’t racist. Even a visit to the candy store is layered with risk and tension. Draper offers comic relief through schoolhouse scenes and an accidentally hilarious school play.
Although Stella by Starlight is fiction, Draper drew inspiration from her own family’s story. “The timing falls within my father’s childhood, but I wanted the main character to be based roughly on my grandmother . . . [who] used to go outside at night and write in her journal. All of them were lost except one; she gave it to my father just before she passed away. He gave it to me and said, ‘I want you to write my mother’s story.’ ”
And so, like Draper’s grandmother, Stella is bright and hungry to learn. She asks lots of questions, papers her walls with newspaper articles and eagerly listens while the grown-ups talk—which Draper loved to do during her own childhood visits to North Carolina.
“Sitting on the front porch at my grandmother’s, I wasn’t taking notes to write a book as a 10-year-old, but I was absorbing things about these people,” Draper says. “Everybody was different at night. They worked all day in the fields, no cushy office jobs. At night, they were telling stories, relaxed, and could be themselves. . . . When it came time to write the book, the rhythms of their voices were what started it and triggered my memories.”
Draper is curious to see how Stella by Starlight resonates with young readers. “I have grandchildren this age, and they really don’t think much beyond yesterday,” she says. “To go way back and ask them to care about a child who lived in 1932 is asking them to take a journey.”
If anyone can get kids to take that journey, Draper can. Through Stella’s eyes, readers learn about societal and political issues from 1932 that, alas, are still relevant today.
Universal themes, important lessons, plus some fun—it’s very teacherly, isn’t it? That’s inevitable, as being a teacher is part of Draper’s identity: “Wherever I go, I teach . . . not from a script, not by rote. I speak from the heart.”