On Saturday, January 19, we’re celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. weekend with a special program honoring the 50th anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, featuring acclaimed children’s author and five-time recipient Sharon Draper!
In 1969 Coretta Scott King started the awards to further her and her late husband’s work towards peace and brotherhood by celebrating black authors and illustrators who create children’s literature about African American experiences. In addition to winning the award five times, Sharon Draper is also the first-ever winner of the John Steptoe New Talent Award in 1995 (under the umbrella of the Coretta Scott King Awards).
Last year we were thrilled to feature Draper’s novel Stella by Starlight at our Reading into History Family Book Club. We sat down with Draper to get her thoughts on her novel—a story of bravery and resilience when the Ku Klux Klan comes to a segregated community in 1932. Check out what she has to say about the book and writing in general. She’ll have even more to say on January 19! Ms. Draper will talk about the Coretta Scott King Awards and writing about black history, then she’ll lead a short writing exercise, answer audience questions, sign books.
This event is free with Museum Admission. As space is limited, we strongly advise families to purchase Museum Admission in advance to reserve your spot. Want to bring a school group or another group for whom regular Museum Admission is a barrier? Email firstname.lastname@example.org so we can make this special event accessible to all!
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: 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.
This event is produced in partnership with the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King Book Awards, a committee of the Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table.