Author Sharon Draper: “We need to discuss race, and we can do it through great literature.”

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If we were to list all of The New York Times bestselling author Sharon Draper’s many honors for her writing and teaching, it would take up your whole screen and you wouldn’t be able to see her thoughtful interview below. So, just to give you a taste . . .  Draper has been honored as the National Teacher of the Year and is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, given to African American authors and illustrators of children’s books. She is the recipient of the Dean’s Award from Howard University School of Education, the Beacon of Light Humanitarian award, a Doctor of Laws Degree from Pepperdine University, and the Lifetime Achievement Award for adolescent literature by the National Council of Teachers of English. She has been honored at the White House six times and has represented the United States in Moscow at the Russian Book Festival.

You get the idea.

Draper is busy and brilliant, to say the least, and she loves to connect with teachers, parents, and young people. Lucky for Nashville: She’s speaking at Parnassus Books this Saturday, October 25, at 2 p.m. As a preview, here’s her conversation with our MUSING editor, Mary Laura Philpott:

How old were you when you first realized that words were your medium, that you were a writer deep-down? Do you have any really early memories of writing something and feeling empowered or excited by your own words?

SD: When I was in third grade I wrote something called “Clouds,” in which I described them as looking like bunnies, if I remember. That was NOT a life-altering moment, although I was very proud when it got posted on the school bulletin board. I remember writing assignments always being easy for me in English classes, and getting a 5 on my AP Writing exam. But that wasn’t life changing, either. Not yet. I remember my college professors telling me my scholarly writing was “too flowery.” (I had trouble writing boring papers.) I taught English Language Arts for 20 years, always encouraging my students to write well, but it had never occurred me to write anything myself. When a student challenged me to enter a writing contest, for some reason I actually sent something in. And it won. First prize out of thousands of entries. I got published in a national magazine. I think that was the “aha” moment. That was when it finally dawned on me that perhaps I might be good at writing.

You’ve had an amazing career, traveled so widely, and met so many influential, interesting people. Can you think of a time you felt totally starstruck or had an “I can’t believe this is happening” moment?

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 12.08.22 PMSD: Although it was really, really, really awesome to meet three Presidents, (can you say heart-pounding, lip-stuttering moments?), I think I was truly honored and humbled the first time I met Maya Angelou. I used to teach her words to my students, because she wasn’t in the literature book, but she should have been. She was a living legend, even back then. So when she came to town, one of my former students who was in charge of her appearance at the university remembered how I had lifted Ms. Angelou up for so many years. So my student invited me to the presentation, where I got to sit in the front row, in the VIP section! As Ms. Angelou recited her poetry, I was mumbling them along with her — word for word. Plus, I got invited to the private reception and I got to spend a few minutes with her and just chat. It was important to me because what I had done in the classroom so many years before had influenced that student, who brought it full circle back to me. That is the essence of teaching.

Parents often struggle with how much to discuss issues of race (as well as gender and other natural differences) with children. Does it help kids grow up to be “race-blind” if we don’t emphasize race, or should we be diving into these issues with our kids — and if so, how? We’d love your perspective on how literature in general (and your work, specifically) helps stoke productive, thoughtful discussion among kids, parents, and teachers.

SD: Race is a reality in today’s world. We cannot be blind to it. The dream of Martin Luther King has not yet been fulfilled. When some parents have to teach their boys how to act when confronted by police, and others do not, that’s a problem. When some people are treated differently because of their race or their heritage, that’s a problem.

As I look back on my childhood, I remember being an avid reader, and finally noticing that almost none of the books I loved included characters that looked like me. As I got older I wondered about that, and I exulted in the discoveries of the writings of African-Americans when I did a self-designed, special-studies project in my senior year. It should not have taken 21 years for me to find these writers, who had been there all along.

When I write novels, I’m fully aware of who my readers are (kids of ALL races) and what issues these readers might face, simply by being teenagers. So I try to be inclusive in character descriptions, sometimes making it very clear the race of the character, sometimes not. The issue that character faces, and how that particular fifteen-year old deals with it is what draws a reader into a book. When those readers learn, generally without knowing it, a larger truth about life and humanity, I have succeeded.

For example, the main character in Copper Sun is an enslaved teenager from Ghana in 1738. How she faces those challenges and how I pull my readers into her life and her pain makes the book powerful. They close the book never realizing they have learned about slavery and history and global ethics. They just know they will never forget Amari. So yes, we need to discuss race, and we can do it through great literature. Ideas resound and discussion makes us all rise to the thoughts of others.

Draper

 

You write about pretty difficult subjects. What draws you to that type of material?

SD: Sometimes I get letters from young people or their teachers who want to know why I write about such powerful subjects — like abuse or suicide. I think that difficult or controversial subjects should be handled with skill and delicacy. It is possible to describe a horrible situation, such as child abuse, without using graphic details. Such subjects dealt with in this manner can then be discussed intelligently because it is the ideas and thoughts we want young readers to share, not the experience itself.

We are all attracted to tragedy. That’s why soap operas and sad movies are so popular. I think there’s something within each of us that wants to look at tragedy from the outside so that we don’t have to experience it personally. The other difficult issues or social problems I deal with are very real in the lives of many readers. We don’t live in a world of sugarplum fairies and happily ever after. Perhaps reading about the difficulties of others will act like armor and protect my readers from the personal tragedies in their own lives.

tears of a tigerMany of the letters I receive from students are very touching. Sometimes they tell me that reading one of the books changed their lives. I had a student tell me she called the child abuse hotline that is printed in the back of Forged by Fire. She said, “I read your book. I called that number. You saved my life.” I still get chill bumps when I think of that. Another student wrote that he was depressed and was thinking of taking his life, but after reading Tears of a Tiger, he decided to live. I counseled him to talk to someone he trusted, and he wrote me back that he had. Another student said she was reading Tears of a Tiger in class and that weekend some of her friends were drinking at a party. She thought about BJ in the book (who doesn’t drink), so she called her mother to come and pick her up. Her friends were killed that night in an automobile accident. It’s an awesome responsibility to have so much response to what I’ve written. That’s why I try so hard to make every single book ring true and honest and why I try to be available to my readers.

As I travel around the country and talk to high school students, I’m overwhelmed by their strength and resilience, by their dreams for their future. Books should reflect their struggles and mirror their aspirations. That is what I strive to do.

Wonderful. OK, a few more quick questions… What do you enjoy most about browsing in a bookstore? SD: I love the smell of books, the feel of the binding, the peacefulness of browsing. I like the fact I can grab two or three books, find a comfy chair, and lose myself in someone else’s words. Bookstores make me happy.

Last book you read? SD: Two hundred and seventy-four books for the National Book Awards this summer! A reader and writer’s dream adventure. Best one on the list? I can’t tell you. The award has not yet been announced. But it’s goooood!

Last book you gave as a gift? SD: Wrapped in Rainbows – The Biography of Zora Neal Hurston, by Valerie Boyd.
Zora is my literary hero. She was so full of creative passion, and she paved the way for writers like me. Without Zora, who opened those literary doors, I would be nothing.

Next book on your to-read stack? SD: I like the works of Diane McKinney-Whetstone. I feel like one of my student readers as I’m waiting for her to publish her next novel. Hurry, Diane! I’m thirsty for the next one!

Thank you — and see you soon!

SD: Thanks for such thoughtful, meaningful queries. These are some of the BEST questions I’ve ever been asked. And I’ve been asked a lot!

Meet Sharon Draper at Parnassus Books this Saturday, October 25, at 2 p.m. This event is free and open to the public! 

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