On February 11, our Reading Into History Family Book Club is honored to welcome author Sharon Draper! She’ll be joining us to discuss her book Stella by Starlight, a story of bravery and resilience in a segregated community when the Klu Klux Klan returns to their town in 1932. Draper—who also penned the middle-grade instant classics Out of My Mind and Copper Sun—is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and has been recognized for her contributions to children’s literature at the White House on six occasions.
To get ready for this month’s book club, we sat down with Draper to get answers to a few of the many, many questions we have about her moving book, her research, and her writing.
Have questions of your own? Bring them with you to this month’s book club meeting! After we discuss the book together, she’ll answer your questions and sign copies of her beloved books. Afterwards, we’ll examine some original objects in the Library related to Draper’s powerful story.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Your book is dedicated to your father and your grandmother. In your beautiful dedication to the both of them, you note that your grandmother “kept her memories in that journal.” Did your grandmother’s writing habits influence you as a writer?
Sharon Draper: If I can, I’ll bring a copy of her journal [to book club on February 11]. It’s very old and includes the scribbles of a young girl who lived in a rural part of the country. She was not a happy person. But she had the need to write. I think that her love of writing became genetically infused with me. I don’t know how—I simply “feel” her presence.
DCHM: The town where your story takes places, Bumblebee, North Carolina, is fictional. However, it feels like a real place because of all the history that’s woven into the narrative. How did you infuse real history into a fictional town? What sort of research did you do?
Sharon Draper: Bumblebee is based very loosely on the town my grandmother and my father grew up in. We used to spend summers there. It’s a fictional version of my childhood memories. I did lots of research into local newspapers and events, but the characters are completely created. A local historian read the book and hated it. She couldn’t find any real family ties in it. I did that on purpose. Fiction is the essence of reality, not reality itself.
DCHM: Throughout the book, our protagonist Stella struggles with her writing class in school. She wants to write well but never feels as if her voice is strong enough on the page. What advice would you give to young people who, like Stella, want to become better writers?
Sharon Draper: Write every day. Don’t try to write novels at first—focus on descriptions, on details, on settings, on sunshine, on moonlight. Just as a dancer first learns patterns, so must a writer first learn the fine points of writing with nuance and power. Take your time and enjoy the process.
DCHM: Stella is surrounded by so many kind, generous adults in her community who guide her and support her. Do you have a favorite amongst all these wonderful characters?
Sharon Draper: I try very hard not to fall in love with a specific character. I feel like the mom to all of them—old and young alike. My heart always goes to the most vulnerable characters. I guess I leave the choices for each reader to choose and love.
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe Stella by Starlight?
Sharon Draper: Memories. Family. Love.
DCHM: And finally, we have to ask: Have you ever written by starlight?
Sharon Draper: I’ve marveled at the moon—the phases intrigue me—but I’ve never written anything while outside on a starry night. But I’m sure that those images eventually evolved into words in a story. All natural events inspire me—freshly fallen snow and thunderstorms and the changing of leaves in the fall—but the starlight and the moon I left to Stella. They belong to her.