Sharon M. Draper is the author of Brightly’s second Book Club for Kids pick, Stella by Starlight, based on the diary of her Grandma Estelle. We spoke with Sharon about the joys and challenges of writing, about good food and loving family, and about inspiration, kindness, and justice — all important themes in Stella.
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Throughout the book, Stella struggles to improve her writing, even taking big risks to get in extra practice. How do you overcome writer’s block? What advice do you have for kids who have a lot to say but sometimes have a hard time finding the right words?
I used to say, “I never get writer’s block!” Until I did. It’s awful. Words just don’t come. Ideas get stuck in mid-air. So what does one do? Leave the writing alone for a bit. Go outside. Get some exercise. Eat something yummy. Did you know that chewing on a peppermint and chewing on a piece of chocolate will produce two different pieces of writing? The best advice I can give is to give it time. Start something new. There is no requirement to finish a piece. Wait for a moment of inspiration like a sunset or a rainbow. Then get back to it.
You’re a professional educator and spend a lot of time in schools. Is it a coincidence that Stella’s teacher, Mrs. Grayson, is such an important figure? Is there a particular person in your life who inspired her character?
I really, really admire teachers and I probably have included a teacher in many of my books. Teachers are formative in the lives of young people. They can have life-changing positive (or negative) effects on a child’s life. So I included Mrs. Grayson, who represents the best of all of us who teach. My favorite teacher was probably my fifth-grade teacher. She inspired me to like poetry and Shakespeare and the arts. I never even knew she was doing it at the time. Only by looking back did I realize it.
Stella must often overcome the pain caused by people who judge others without knowing them at all — and learn how not to do this herself. What advice do you have for kids going through the same growing pains?
It is often difficult to navigate the sometimes rocky road of school and friends and opinions and choices and problems. Just know that you are not alone. Everyone is fighting the same silent battle, all while pretending to actually know what they are doing. Gravitate toward those who care about others. Try not to feel hurt when someone judges you unfairly. Believe in yourself and always choose the higher ground. It is not easy, but it does get easier.
Family is the heart of Stella by Starlight. What were some of your favorite family rituals growing up? Do any of them appear in the book?
When I was a little girl, I used to love listening to the older people tell stories on my grandmother’s front porch. Late at night, under moonlight, with lots to eat and drink, they would laugh and joke and tell the most wonderful tales. I’m sure that Spoon Man and his storytelling, as well as the story Mrs. Grayson tells, emerged from those memories. Much of Stella’s home and community emerged from my own childhood memories of her farm, and her animals, and that porch.
At church and in times of trouble, Stella’s community finds hope and comfort in traditional hymns and spirituals. Is there a special song you listen to when you need encouragement or inspiration?
I suppose I have a favorite playlist like everyone else. It is heavy with blues and gospel music. My mother would probably be surprised by that because, when we were children, she surrounded us with classical music and opera! But something deep inside me loves the rhythms and beats of the old songs. Mavis Staples sings a song called “Every Step of the Way.” I like that one, but it is only one of many.
It’s hard to read Stella by Starlight without getting hungry. What was your favorite food growing up?
My other grandmother (my mom’s mother) was a fantastic cook! She made the best made-from-scratch yeast rolls in the universe. It took all day for them to rise and fall and rise again. The smell of yeast filled her house. When they came out of the oven, soft and fluffy and slathered in real butter, there was nothing better. Absolutely scrumptious.
I’m sure many of her recipes ended up in Stella’s story, as well as delicious goodies from Grandma Estelle’s kitchen.
Newspapers are everywhere in Stella’s home, and she’s an aspiring reporter fascinated by journalism and current events. What advice would you give to young people eager to learn more about what’s going on in their communities and around the world?
Printed newspapers, which used to be delivered to most homes in the morning, are not as popular as they once were, which I think is sad. There’s something special about reading the news and opinions and comics of the day first thing in the morning. I still like the feel of a real newspaper. But today’s young people are more likely to get their information from the internet. That’s fine, as long as they include a real news app on their devices. The fast-paced world of Instagram and Snapchat and all the others are fine for communication with friends, but those don’t usually report on important events in the world like elections or hurricanes or battles. So a good news app that sends updates on important news events would keep a young person well informed as well as socially conscious. Knowledge is power.
What other books would you recommend for readers who loved Stella by Starlight?