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I Was That Little Girl Who Went to the Library Every Single Saturday: A Conversation with Sharon Draper

by on January 20, 2015

This past fall, author Sharon Draper’s novel, Out of My Mind, was Loudoun County Public Library’s pick for their 1 Book, 1 Community book. As part of the program, Draper visited the area and did an author chat at a local middle school. The story of a young girl with a severe disability touched a lot of readers, young and old(er). Below is an interview Christyna Hunter did for Public Libraries via e-mail with Draper on December 1, 2014.

Public Libraries: Your book, Out of My Mind, came out in 2010. Have you been surprised by the reaction to it?

Sharon Draper: Out of My Mind has been blessed from the first day it came out.  It seems to touch the hearts and minds of people.  I received letters from parents and students and grandparents and caregivers and lots of young people who, like Melody, face the world with many challenges.  I’ve also received many letters from students in other countries, as the book has been translated into I think ten different languages now.  Yes, the book is blessed.  It changes the way we as humans look at each other.

PL: You have visited many schools and public libraries, including my own (LCPL) to discuss Out of My Mind. What has been your experience doing this? Have young readers surprised or entertained you with questions during your visits?

SD: I love visiting schools and libraries!  I was that little girl who went to the library every single Saturday, who checked out ten books at a time because I just couldn’t get enough.  So I always feel at home in any library.

And since I was a teacher I always like returning to schools because I can interact with the students and teachers.   I show up at a school in jeans and sneakers.   I talk to them.  I make jokes.  I let them ask questions—zillions and zillions of questions.  And I listen to them.  I observe them—what they’re wearing, what shoes are cool, what hairstyles are in, what words and phrases and music they like.  Then I try to incorporate their essence into each story.  I make sure lots of real teenagers read sections of a new novel before I release it to them.  Their opinion is essential to the success of the book.

PL: You must be excited for your new book, Stella by Starlight, to come out in January 2015. Please tell us about it.  What inspired it?

SD: When I was a little girl, we used to spend summers on my grandmother’s farm in North Carolina, where each night I sat quietly on the front porch and listened to the elders tell outrageous stories.  They came to that porch weary from working all day, but left there energized.  I loved the rhythm of their voices, the power of their laughter.

My father and grandmother were different people on those evenings—indulgent to me rather than strict—with Grandma sneaking me cookies and Daddy letting me stay up way past my bedtime.  They were the early threads of a quilt I didn’t even know I was weaving.

I also found out, many years later, that my grandmother, when she was a little girl, had kept a secret journal of her hopes and dreams–a notebook she wrote outside, after dark, under the stars.  I was given that journal many years ago, and I promised to write her story.  I had no idea a story of my own would emerge from those summer evenings.

I blended my memories of those glorious tales with the passion of my grandmother’s hidden scribbles into the novel that became Stella by Starlight.  Focusing on strength of family, power of community, and interspersed with music, storytelling, social commentary, and history,  Stella by Starlight is my gift to young readers.

PL: How is Stella’s story different than Melody’s in Out of My Mind?

SD: Although they are both eleven-year-old girls, Stella is very different from Melody.  Stella lives in 1932 in a community filled with lots more love than money, and also quite a bit of danger.  She struggles in school with writing and reading, and how to express her thoughts on paper.  Her journey of discovery becomes the story—the discovery of evil, the strength of family, and the power of the written word.  Like my grandmother did so many years ago when she was a child, Stella writes in a journal as well.  Her story brims with courage, compassion, creativity, and resilience.

PL: Are there any lessons you hope readers will get from this newest novel?

SD: 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.

Thanks so much to Sharon Draper for taking the time to do this interview. Also, learn more about the author and her work at http://sharondraper.com/.

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