Interview with Sharon Draper, Author of Stella by Starlight
We are SO grateful to Sharon Draper for answering our questions this month! Members loved reading Stella by Starlight (even those of us who are not typical middle grade readers) and we are so excited to hear about some behind-the-scenes information about Sharon's writing and her life as an author.
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Q:You're an educator as well as a writer. How do you balance being both?
A: Whenever I’m in a room full of young people, I’m a teacher. There is so much knowledge to learn and share. I really enjoy the interactions with students. When I’m at home, I’m a writer, but I keep those young people in my mind as I write every single sentence.
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Q: We'd love to hear about your writing process. Do you have any special rituals that you follow when you sit down to write?
A: I have an office that starts out neat, but ends up very messy every day. I sit in a raggedy yellow chair that fits only me and I love it. It’s so comfortable. I need complete silence to write—not even music playing. And I just let myself go and live in the world I’m creating.
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Q:What kind of research did you conduct before writing Stella by Starlight?
A: My grandmother was my spirit muse, my writing inspiration, and neither she nor I knew it. She was a little girl living in 1915, yearning for more than working on a farm. She wrote in a journal at night, under the stars, because that’s the only time she could do it. Seventy five years later, when she passed away, she gave the last remaining notebook to my father, who eventually gave it to me with the instructions, “Write my mother’s story.” It took me a very long time to finish what he asked me to do. The novel Stella by Starlight is fiction, but the essence of the story is based on pure truth. I did several months of research to make sure every detail about that time period was accurate. Fro example, if you find the chapter in which her class recites the Pledge of Allegiance, I use the version that would have been used in her time. The Pledge was changed in the 50s to include the words “under God.” It was not used during Stella’s time.
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Q: We noticed that storytelling is a recurring theme in Stella by Starlight. Why do you think it's important for different cultures to tell these stories and to pass them on to younger generations?
A: I am a member of the National Storytelling organization. We tell stories to remember the past and encourage the future generations. I love the power of a well-told story. That’s how humans first entertained each other—by storytelling in the caves.
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Q: One of your other novels, Out of My Mind, has come up repeatedly in our recommendations forum as another great example of diverse literature. What compels you to write stories about underrepresented individuals or cultures?
A: I write about what strikes me at that moment. I have no agenda to represent anyone—I just focus on the characters and the characters tell their story. I build them a neighborhood, a family, a place to start from, but the characters create the story.
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Q: As an educator, do you ever get to use your novels with students?
A: I'm no longer in the classroom teaching, but whenever I talk to students at schools I am actually teaching! They do not know it, and there's no homework! Except to read, I suppose. I am very honored in that many, many classrooms use my novels, however.
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Q: Our most popular discussion topic this month has been about the ending of Stella by Starlight, and whether or not members wished for a feeling of closure in this story. Can you tell us about your intentions for the end of this novel?
A: Stella probably has lots more adventures before she grows up. She lives in a loving community, full of possibilities of all kinds of action. But I chose to tell just this one small slice of her life. If I wrote more, the story would be ponderous and you wouldn't like it. Of course there is more, but sometimes a writer needs to leave a character as just a moment in time. That way the reader never forgets her. Stella will stay with me for a very long time. But I won't be writing about her life. Even though it would be a cool story!
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Q: Can you tell us about any projects you're currently working on?
A: I'm finishing up a new middle grade novel. It takes place in current times, not the past, so the main character gets to have a cell phone and all modern things you are familiar with. I can't tell you the plot, but you'll like her! I'm also working on a novel in which the main character is a boy. Neither of these are quite finished -- it takes many months to finish.
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Q: Since Stella by Starlight is historical fiction, it can be easy to relegate the events of the story to the past. But all we have to do is turn on the news to see that things have not changed as much as we might like to think. What do you hope modern readers will take away from this story for the present day?
A: First of all, I want young people to love the story and cheer for Stella. If readers can identify with the 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.
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Thank you Sharon, for taking time to chat with us about your writing!