Sharon Draper was just that type of individual. Her dedication, authenticity and commitment to excellence, led her to be honored as an OH Teacher of the Year and subsequently, National Teacher of the Year in 1997. Afterwards, Draper set her sights on the publishing industry; writing well over 30 books, with some becoming NY Times best sellers.
In this conversation, Draper shares her thought-provoking insights on the importance of education, the power of reading and why African-American children's literature is so important.
A. Since the days of chairs nailed to the floor and hand-held chalk boards, our methods
of education have been changing and evolving. However, the process of teaching and learning remains the same--for education to occur, there must be a learner, a guider of instruction, and an effective delivery system.
This could be accomplished in a traditional classroom with thirty students listening to a teacher in a three-story brick school building with vast computer technology. But education also happens in homeless shelters, hospital wards, back yards, business offices, and parking lots.
Education sings in hallways as well as auditoriums, and dances in small rural cottages as well as gleaming city edifices. Education soars when one child and one teacher make the connection between the unknown and the known. That makes me feel proud and confident of our future.
Q2. What's your view on the achievement gap between African-American students and other ethnic groups? How can this be remedied?
A. Capturing the attention as well as the spirit of the contemporary student is a difficult task. Sometimes, and I do not want to generalize or stereotype here, but sometimes African American teens are caught in a whirlwind of failure and apathy, pulled by outside influences of peer pressure, and sometimes gangs or drugs.
They are influenced by the falsely decorated lives of rap stars and sports figures. It's not cool to be seen as smart, and not acceptable to be seen as an academic achiever. However, they are so intelligent and so talented. Somewhere between kindergarten and high school, we forgot to tell them how wonderful they are.
We forgot to remind them of their heritage and why they should be proud. They have grown up with momentary video images with much sound and very little substance. They are frenetic, energetic, and restless; channel surfers in all aspects of their lives--busy and constantly bombarded with stimuli from radio, television, and computers.
How to fix that? Huge challenge. But I'd start with the little ones--pre-school. And I'd use teenagers who ARE succeeding and achieving to be their role models and guiders. Kind of like an in-house "big brother/sister" system.
I'd teach them history and pride and respect. I'd cheer for their successes. I'd create programs to encourage them to go to college with financial incentives. I believe in possibilities and I think, with an organized effort, we can make a dent in the educational inequities.
A. My students, some of whom didn't like to read the assigned texts, were my
inspirations. A student challenged me to enter a short story writing contest (the Ebony Magazine contest) and out of thousands of entries, my story was selected as the winner that year.
After that I decided to try writing a novel. I wanted to write something that young people could read that would be contemporary and exciting, yet have a solid literary base for teachers to use. I sent the first manuscript to 25 publishing companies. I got 24 rejections in a row. But the very last letter was a yes! And that was from Simon and Schuster, way back in 1994. So I guess you can say it took 20 years for me to become an overnight success! I'm very blessed.
I didn't know I was going to write a trilogy. I wrote Tears of a Tiger, and it had so much success that I was asked to write a sequel, which is pretty difficult if your main character is dead. So I took the short story that started it all—"One Small Torch" (the one that won the writing contest) and made it chapter one of Forged by Fire. The third book in the trilogy is called Darkness before Dawn. As I wrote the three, the characters grew and developed, and I guess I did as well.
Q4. How can parents help instill a love of reading in their children? What specific steps should be taken for the "eager" child, as well as the "reluctant reader?"
A. The best way to instill a love of reading in a child is to read TO them, read WITH them, and let them read to you.
Books are to be shared and discussed. Books are to be held and loved and remembered. That experience of sharing a book can create positive memories that can last a lifetime.
Kids today live in a noisy, frenetic world of instant gratification and electronic satisfaction. Information they need can be instantly downloaded from their computers to their printers without having to pass through their brain for thought or digestion of ideas. Their worlds are hurried, pushed and scheduled. They go to soccer practice, ballet lessons and gymnastics. They heat their dinner in the microwave, watch television while they pay cursory attention to their homework, then fall asleep in exhaustion to start the routine again the next day. Parents need to take time to read with their children, to turn off the television and open a book.
Their world has very little time for leisurely, extended periods of reading. Nothing in our current way of living encourages, applauds, or celebrates the joy of reading. The joy of television, the glory of movies, the magic of video images—these are what our society celebrates and emulates.
Reading, which is the key to a world of knowledge beyond that commercialism, must compete with and conquer the forces that push reading to the bottom of the book bag in the priority system.
A. I really don't have a favorite--honest. Each book is like one of my children--special, unique, and wonderful. Out of my Mind stands out because of its phenomenal success (It's been on the NY Times Bestseller list for almost a year-yay!) but if I get just one letter from just one student about a book that touched them for whatever reason, then that book is its own monument to success and I value it with honor and respect.
Q6. Some of your books tackle tough subjects such as gang violence, child abuse, hazing and sexting, among others. Please explain?
A. I think that difficult or controversial subjects should be dealt 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 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 sugar plum 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.
Many students write to me about these issues, and some of their letters 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 in the back of Forged by Fire. She wrote me to thank me for saving her life.
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 them.
A. Yes, I actually did have the honor of meeting Mrs. King when she came to Cincinnati! She spoke for a women's conference, and, amazingly, I got to go back stage and speak to her. I had taken a copy of Tears of a Tiger and Forged by Fire (both Coretta Scott King winners) with me "just in case," and she graciously signed both of them of for me. Those two books sit in a place of honor on my shelf.
Q8. What's your perspective on the state of children's literature as it relates to
A. There is MUCH to be desired in this area, and I feel very strongly about this issue. I recently looked at the book fair at an elementary school, and there were LOTS of books for little girls that featured pixies and mermaids and fairies and such, all with blond hair. Most wore sparkles. Several had wings. All of them were pretty. I found ONE book that featured an African American child. She wore an ugly dress and she had scabby knees. What's up with that?
It was worse for boys. There were very few chapter books for boys (most books were non fiction) and nothing that featured African American boys. Now I have written TEN books that from ages seven to eleven feature children of color--the Ziggy books for boys and the Sassy books for girls. None of them were there of course. Somehow publishers have the
notion that African American children don't read or won't read. That's not true. What is true is that they can't find books TO read. It's a little better for teens as there are more writers out there for them--Sharon Flake, Nikki Grimes, Walter Dean Myers, etc.
We need books for children of color all year round, not just in February. And while we are on
that subject, let us make it very clear that ALL children need to be exposed to these books. The assumption that black children need black books, and white children shouldn't or won't read them is ludicrous. If I read one more article about demographics and marketability, I think I'll scream. Kids will read a book if it is good. Period. They will buy a book if it looks inviting.
When I was growing up, all the library shelves were white. When my children were growing up, there was very little to offer them. Today, MY GRANDCHILDREN have difficulty finding a book that is culturally meaningful. American publishing in 2013 ought to be ashamed of itself.
Q9. How would you sum up your work in one sentence?
A. I try to write powerful, meaningful stories for young people and show them I understand the difficulties of growing up, and to let them know I care.