Sharon M. Draper is a New York Times bestselling author who has received the Coretta Scott King Award for both Copper Sun and Forged by Fire. Her Out of My Mind has won multiple awards and has been a New York Times bestseller for more than a year. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she taught high school English for twenty-five years and was named National Teacher of the Year.
In this conversation, we talked to Draper about the inspiration behind Stella by Starlight and the basic goodness in humanity.
Sharon M. Draper: 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.
Because of the personal relationship you have with this story, did you find it more difficult to write?
The book was difficult for me to write initially, not because it was personal, but because I felt somewhat intimidated by the task. How could I possibly capture the magic of my childhood memories, the wisdom of my grandmother, and the power of stories told on a front porch after dark? Memories are always unreliable. How could I possibly make this story enchanting for modern children, who were born with technology sprouting from their fingertips. So, as usual, I began to focus on the character, not the situation or the time in history, or the reality. As Stella became a real person to me, the task got easier. Stella carried me through.
You’ve shared that your Grandmother kept a journal, and throughout Stella by Starlight, we follow Stella on her own writing journey. Why did you chose to highlight Stella’s struggles with writing and expression?
My grandmother loved writing, as do I. It would be easy to create a character who knows how to capture the magic of an idea and turn that to lovely words on the page. But as a teacher I learned that far more students struggle with writing, and, like Stella, react with dismay when a teacher gives a writing assignment. Stella’s journey from “not being very good at this writing stuff” to realizing she has a narrative voice worth listening to gives hope and encouragement to so many students who can learn to do the same.
There is a famous jazz standard titled “Stella by Starlight” written by Victor Young, is there any deliberate relation between your book and this jazz favorite?
I really like that song, and I tried my best to include a bit of the lyrics or the imagery from it into the novel, but alas, it did not work. ☺ It’s a song for grownups and Stella is a kid. But my grandmother really was named Estelle and she really did write under the stars, so thank you Mr. Young, for the inspiration!
Throughout the novel, Stella demonstrates fierce acts of bravery and courage. How did you come to characterize her this way?
Stella’s growth is gradual. No one plans to become a hero when they wake up on a Wednesday morning. Heroism and bravery come from within, from tenets and examples taught by others. Stella’s father’s resolve to vote, her community’s solidarity against threats of oppression, even her teacher’s belief in all of her students, for example, show Stella what courage looks like in the real world. Stella is surprised when people want to honor her for her bravery—she simply did what she had to do when the situation called for it. That’s courage.
For every vile act of intimidation in Stella by Starlight, you show unwavering goodness in humanity. Tell us about your intentions in these depictions.
I’m honestly not sure if I did this on purpose. A story and characters evolve and develop sometimes without the fingerprint of the author upon them. If I remember, what resounded in me while I was writing this was the strong sense of community I remembered from the real town on which fictional Bumblebee is based. Just like any other small rural town in the South, it held good folks and bad, black folks and white, noble folks and rascals. Besides, I really do believe in the basic goodness of humanity. I believe that there are more people who want the world to be a safe, fair, inclusive place, where all children can feel they can succeed and be surrounded with love.
Paulette Packard seemingly has everything a little girl could want: a rich family, the best clothes, and all the privileges afforded to whites during the era. However, even with what appears to be an abundance of good fortune, we learn she desperately yearns for love and attention. Have you thought about telling Paula Packard’s story? Would she envy Stella’s closeness to her family and community?
That’s actually a very good idea, but I doubt if Paulette will ever get her own story. I’ve met lots of girls like Paulette, girls who seemingly “have it all.” It’s ironic that Stella is actually the one who has what most girls want. I think we all yearn for love and support and affirmation from family, however.
Unfortunately, many of the issues faced by the fictional community of Bumblebee, North Carolina in 1932 are still themes in today’s society. What lessons do you hope readers take from this book?
Yes, many of the issues still exist—racial discrimination, voting intimidation, social separation, human devaluation. I hope that by reading Stella by Starlight that young readers absorb some very real truths without ever knowing they have learned anything. If they think about the world differently and decide to try to make things better, then I have succeeded.
You’ve published many wonderful bodies of work prior to Stella by Starlight. In what ways do you think the book would have been different if it was your first novel rather than your latest?
Oh my—great question. If this were my first book, this novel would not have been as good. Period. I have grown and developed and learned. I think I’m a better writer than I was when I started. I should be. Each time we set out to do or create, we should improve just a little. We should reach higher, dream bigger. That’s what I try to do.
Can you share any details about what’s on the horizon in terms of your next writing endeavor?
I’m going to finish the sequel to Panic, the YA novel. And I have a idea for a new middle grades novel—about a child in crisis, of course. I can’t wait to get started.
Thank you for the wonderful questions.
For more information, visit: SharonDraper.com
Publisher’s Synopsis: When the Ku Klux Klan’s unwelcome reappearance rattles Stella’s segregated southern town, bravery battles prejudice in this Depression-era tour de force from Sharon Draper, the New York Times bestselling author of Out of My Mind.
Stella lives in the segregated South—in Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact about it. Some stores she can go into. Some stores she can’t. Some folks are right pleasant. Others are a lot less so. To Stella, it sort of evens out, and heck, the Klan hasn’t bothered them for years. But one late night, later than she should ever be up, much less wandering around outside, Stella and her little brother see something they’re never supposed to see, something that is the first flicker of change to come, unwelcome change by any stretch of the imagination. As Stella’s community—her world—is upended, she decides to fight fire with fire. And she learns that ashes don’t necessarily signify an end.
Ages 9-13 | Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers | 2015 | ISBN-13: 978-1442494978
This interview with Sharon M. Draper about Stella by Starlight was conducted by Gi Hallmark. Follow along with our content tagged with Books by Sharon M. Draper and Books for African American History Month to discover more great articles just like this one.