In January, librarians, teachers and children as young as 8 packed a Chapel Hill bookstore to hear Sharon Draper speak about her newest novel, “Stella by Starlight” (Atheneum, ages 9-12).
Draper, winner of the Coretta Scott King and National Teacher of the Year awards in 1997, has written books for all ages – the Sassy series starring a feisty fourth-grader (Scholastic, ages 7-9), Clubhouse Mystery books in which four fifth-grade African-American boys explore history and mystery (Aladdin, ages 9 and up), as well as hard-hitting teen novels like “Forged by Fire” (Atheneum, ages 12 and up).
Draper described her awe at learning her 2010 title, “Out of My Mind” (Atheneum, ages 10 and up) had been selected for the “Time Magazine” List of “100 Best Children’s Books of All Time”. “Out of My Mind,” a book that received four starred reviews, is a first-person narrative told by Melody Brooks, whose peers (and some teachers) see her cerebral palsy instead of her brilliance. Tremendously proud of this important book, Draper also found its success intimidating and her writing stalled.
She wrote “Stella by Starlight” after constant nudging by her father who asked, “Did you write my mother’s book yet?” He referred to her Grandmother Estelle’s pencil-scrawled journal. Estelle, a devoted learner who had to leave school to help her family, often wrote in the moonlight. Draper received the hardcover of her book after returning from her father’s funeral as it was “a gift from him.”
The heroine, based on Draper’s grandmother, is 11-year-old Stella. The story begins as she sneaks out of the house one night and sees “Nine robed figures dressed all in white. Heads covered with softly pointed hoods.” This lyrical tension continues as reflections of a burning cross’ “peppery-red flames” shimmer on the pond. Stella waits in crunching “traitorous leaves” before dashing off to warn the adults of the Klan’s appearance.
The threat of the Klan is a major thread in the story, but the book is as much about a young girl’s struggles with school work, a scary encounter with a snake and the family warmth that nurtures her. Strong imagery makes the fictional setting of Bumblebee, N.C., real. The setting is based on Union Mills, N.C., where Draper’s grandmother grew up, a place she often visited as a child. Draper remembered the humor and wit of late-night storytelling and in the book this conveys the strength that families needed in 1932 when “they had to take care of their own problems and take care of one another.”
Nearing the end of the evening, an eager young girl was called out of the audience because her ride home had arrived. She rose reluctantly, her book still unsigned. Draper stopped midsentence and signed it. By then we’d all come to see Draper’s playfulness, compassion and dedication and cheered. I cheered again Feb. 2, when Draper won the 2015 Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults.