Interview with Award-Winning and Bestselling Author Dr. Sharon M. Draper
The Children’s Book Review
Published: August 21, 2013
Dr. Sharon M. Draper is a New York Times bestselling author who has been honored as the National Teacher of the Year and received the Coretta Scott King Award for both Copper Sun (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2008) and Forged by Fire (Simon Pulse, 1998). Her Out of My Mind (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2012) has won multiple awards and is a New York Times bestseller. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she taught high school English for twenty-five years and was named National Teacher of the Year.
From the beginning of her writing career through to her latest book Panic (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013), we’re so happy to share our chat with Dr. Sharon M. Draper.
Bianca Schulze: The encouragement it took for you to become a writer stemmed from a student giving you an application to a short story contest, which you went on to win. Winning this contest brought you a letter from famed American writer and co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex Hayley. He wrote: “Dear Mrs. Draper, I think you’re a wonderful writer.” Hayley passed away two years before your first book was published and I read that you felt hurt that the one person who said you could be a writer never got to see you become one. Which of the moments described above, winning the contest or receiving the letter, do you think has had the greatest impact on your writing career?
Dr. Sharon M. Draper: Hmm. What a good question! To be perfectly honest, both incidents became important factors in my writing career. I wrote that short story, called One Small Torch, from a gut reaction to a real incident. I was at the grocery story and I saw and heard a woman screaming at the three-year-old in her cart. The first line of the story quotes her actual words. “If you don’t sit your stinking, useless butt, back down in the shopping cart, I swear I’ll bust your greasy face in!” The rest of the story simply flowed. I wrote it in one evening. I had no idea how good the story was, but I sent it into the contest, hoping for the best, and not really expecting anything. When I found out I had one first prize, I was thrilled. Alex Haley’s letter gave me veracity and encouragement. The fact that he took time out of his busy life to write me a note of acclaim and acknowledgement meant so very much to me. The following year, I wrote a letter of encouragement to that’s year’s winner. I figured I’d pass along the blessings. It was several years after that before I wrote my first novel, but Alex Haley’s words gave me the strength to try. By the way, that story is now chapter one of Forged by Fire, so it doesn’t sit alone and unnoticed—it’s became the dynamic intro to a powerful novel.
BS: If you could say anything to Alex Hayley right now, what would you tell him?
SD: I would tell him thank you for taking the time. Because of him I always try to take the time with new writers who are just beginning the journey.
BS: Your first book published was Tears of a Tiger (Simon & Schuster, 1994) and you shared the entire process from draft to bookstore with your students. What do you feel was the most rewarding aspect of sharing this experience with your students?
SD: Teenagers are so honest! “You don’t have any cussing the the locker room scene, Ms. D. That’s not realistic,” they told me. My reply: “You need to read cussing in my book—you do enough of it on your own! Besides, I want this book to be read by kids younger than you; kids who might be offended. I’ll leave the harsh stuff out and let you use your own imagination.” We had lots of conversations like that. They hated the original book cover art. I did too. They agreed that the sad parts were nuanced just enough. They reminded me when I sounded more like a grown-up than a teenager. It was a fun experience.
BS: Do you know if any of the students from this particular time in your teaching career have gone on to be published authors?
SD: I’m not sure if any became authors, but lots and lots of my former students became teachers. I’ve very proud of that. I used to tell them—you are the best and the brightest. You need to teach to prepare the next generation. Lots of them took me up on that.
BS: I love the words of wisdom that you share with young aspiring writers: “If you want to be a writer, first be a reader. A lover of books can easily become a master of words.” This tells me that there is hope for me, too—I’m inspired to write! Do you have a list of childhood books that you feel helped make you a reader and in turn a master of words?
SD: I was a voracious reader as a child. My mother took me to the library every Saturday. I’d check out ten books (the maximum), take them home and devour them, then get ten more the next week. As I got older, I went by myself. I probably read 90% of the books in that little library by the time I got to middle school. So I can’t give you a favorite. I read in huge gulps—everything Louisa May Alcott, then everything by Beverly Cleary. I believe that to become a writer, it is absolutely essential to be a reader. You need to accumulate zillions of words and phrases and nuances n your head so that when you sit down to write, all that spills out, like great colorful pieces of power and beauty.
BS: Since Tears of a Tiger you have gone on to write many books and receive many awards and accolades, including being a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Literary Awards! [I highly recommend readers of this interview take a look at just how esteemed you are: http://sharondraper.com/formal-biography.asp] Your latest book, Panic (Antheum Books for Young Readers, 2013), touches on multiple current news topics: bullying, kidnapping and sexting. Every time you write a book, your characters are incredibly relatable for their intended audience. In Panic, you have done your utmost to give a voice to teens that might be afraid to speak up about difficult relationships. During your discussions with teens that have read the book, is there a particular sentence or paragraph that seems to resonate with readers the most?
SD: I receive hundreds of letters from teen readers. They are honest and open and talk to me as a friend. One young lady told me that she had also been abducted, and that she was still coping with the after effects. Lots of kids write to thank me for the warning. “I would have been as dumb as Diamond,” one girl said. “Everybody wants to be a star.” The last scene of the book , where Diamond finds peace through dance, seems to resonate with lots of young people. I’ve had that scene professionally recorded by a young dancer and her teacher. I hope to have it posted on my website soon.
BS: Dance and music are a huge part of Panic. Stealing your eloquent wording: “Dance and music swirl throughout the novel as colorful decorations.” One would imagine that you were listening to music as the words flowed from you during the creation of this story; however, you like to write in complete silence. Does the silence allow you to hear your inner thoughts more clearly? And, if you could name one emotion, what did you feel while writing this book?
SD: I do write in silence, but I stopped many times during the process of writing Panic to listen to music, to the songs I wanted to use, to the lyrics the songs used to represent the pain and angst of the characters Music is around me all the time, so it was easy to weave it into the story. My emotion? Probably passion. Because music and dance and beauty are all so passionate to me. I tried to transpose that passion into my words.
BS: While on the topic of dance and music, lets talk about groove and the three hundred books you read each year. You like authors that understand the “groove.” Can you define what you mean by “groove?” And which children’s book have you read lately that showcase the “groove?”
SD: I very rarely read children’s books or books by other YA authors. I’ll skim them so I can recommend them to students who are thirsty for more books and other authors, but I try not to get the words of other writers for teens in my head. We each have our own voices, which is as it should be. What I read are adult books—sometimes murder mysteries, sometimes biographies, sometimes historical fiction. My only criteria is that the book sucks me in by the beauty of the language and the power of the way it is written. Some books are like cornflakes—I try to ignore them. I focus on the books that are a well0cooked flavorful meal. When I write, the beauty of the language of others helps me to create my own. The “groove” is simply the place where words and ideas flow and sizzle from my brain to the page.
BS: I know that you don’t waste time on poorly written books. How many pages do you read into a book before giving up on it?
SD: Two or three chapters. Life’s too short to waste on a bad book. I leave those on planes, give them to flight attendants. Someone else might might think the book is really good—I certainly hope so. it was just not for me.
BS: Lastly, if you were to dine with any character from one of your books, whom would you select and what would you serve?
SD: I think I’d like to dine with Amari from Copper Sun. She’s a powerfully strong girl who lost everything—her family, her home, her very identity. Yet she survived. I’d give her a hug, tell her her life had meaning for a whole generation of people she would never know. I’d like to tell her that she would grow up to be a strong woman, full of sorrow, but focusing on the hope and happiness around her. I’d serve foo-foo, a meal of Ghana, so she could remember the taste of home.
For more information on Dr. Sharon M. Draper and her books, visit: SharonDraper.com