It’s not unheard of for authors to wear two hats and be a “slash.” Author/Lawyer. Author/Doctor. Author/Teacher.
Although many writers draw from their other full-time job to enhance their fiction, most are counting down the days to shed that job so author becomes their sole profession. But Sharon Draper, bestselling author and five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Literary Award, is among the group of writers who has such a passion for both her professions that she remains active in both in ways that would have most waving the white flag of surrender. She is an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association and has been honored as a National Teacher of the Year.
Her accomplishments are many and her literary prowess is well-documented with powerful stories of loss (November Blues), strength (Copper Sun) and change (Fire from The Rock). So what does someone who continues to help shape young adult literature feel about the state of it?
BBS: I’d be remiss if I didn’t make mention of our new President. As a teacher and writer for young readers, what do you think having a President, who is also an author, will mean to literacy in our country (either the impact on education or on reading/libraries/literacy measures)?
SD: I’m very proud of our new President and very hopeful for what change he can make in this country politically, socially, and of course, educationally. I don’t think the fact that he is an author is as significant as the fact that he is highly educated and he understand the value of books and literacy for his children and for ours as well. He knows that knowledge is the key that can unlock doors of possibility, so I’m confidant that he will be a powerful advocate for schools and libraries and educational programs. I’m hopeful that I will be able to offer my services to the new administration in the areas of literacy and education.
BBS: Can you tell me a little bit more about the infamous Draper Paper. What made it so tough? So tough students who have passed it donned “I Survived The Draper Paper”.
SD: The “Draper Paper” was simply a ten-page research paper that my seniors had to complete. It required several library visits and lots of planning and note-taking, and outlining, etc. In short, they learned the skills necessary to do a college research assignment. The problem, for the students at least, was that I required it be completed the last quarter of their senior year. Instead of going to the mall to look for prom dresses, they had to go to the library and find first-person references. In order to pass my class for the year, students had to complete the paper. It kept them on task at a time when seniors are most likely to lose interest in academics. They hated doing it, but felt so proud when they had completed it successfully. I still get emails from students who told me how they used their Draper Paper in college, and how it helped them learn perseverance. Even years later, many of them still have their tee-shirts, which were always designed by a student, and worn proudly the day the papers were turned in.
BBS: Do you believe the education system is challenging middle and high school students enough when it comes to their writing skill and reading levels?
SD: When I was in school we learned grammar. We learned sentence structure, then learned to use those sentences in paragraphs, and then to put paragraphs into longer written works. Many schools no longer do that. They have even divided what we used to call “English” classes into Reading classes and Language Arts classes, with little or no team teaching between those teachers. How can we separate reading from writing about what we have read? To divide seems to conquer, it seems to me. Students need to learn the structure of the language so they can read it and write it effectively. Hundreds of reading and writing programs exist that claim to help improve both skills. However, without a skilled, well-prepared, highly qualified teacher, such programs are merely decorations on a shelf.
Those of us who wish to help students on a more individual basis can help by reading to students, reading with students, and letting students read to us. It’s important that kids read what interests them. Have them read the instruction manual on a popular game, or an article from a sports magazine, for example. The same is true for writing. Encourage a student to write about what is important in their life—family, friends, school. Individual instruction is powerful and effective.
BBS: Although it’s taken some time to see an increase in the type of fiction available to young African American readers, we are seeing it. However, there are some who feel that offering a “Black” Gossip Girls could have a negative impact on literature for young African American readers. As more commercial and trendy books feature Black characters, where do you see the state of YA fiction for young Black readers in five or ten years?
SD: I would hope that young Black readers would demand quality. We so often stoop to the lowest common denominator, like purchasing music which denigrates our women in the name of culture. So I’d hope that readers who say that something like the Gossip Girls is not good enough, that they would demand books that reflect who they really are. 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, not denigrate them into caricatures of reality. We’ve come too far to settle for less than the best.
BBS: You have the Hazelwood High trilogy and the Jericho trilogy. What attracts you to trilogies?
SD: I did the first trilogy by accident. I wrote Tears of a Tiger, and it ended up being quite successful. When I was asked to do a second book, I decided to take a minor character from the first book and develop him as the major character of the next book. That ended up being Gerald in Forged by Fire. Those two books meet in the middle as companion books. The third book in the Hazelwood trilogy, Darkness Before Dawn, was written to answer all the questions I received about what happened to the characters in the first two books. If I had known I was going to write three books when I started, I would have written them in chronological order.
But I found that students love reading more about the various characters, and they get involved in the fictional lives. So the Jericho trilogy was planned to be a trilogy, and, in chronological order! Each of the six books can stand alone and be read without the others, however.
BBS: What is the release date for Just Another Hero?
SD: Just Another Hero should be out in late May or early June. November Blues, the second book in the Jericho trilogy, will be available in paperback at that time. I’m real excited about Just Another Hero. It asks the questions, “What makes a hero? Who can be a hero? Can a girl be a hero? Can a villain be a hero? What does heroism look like in a modern American high school?
BBS: Your next release is Sassy. It looks like a middle grade novel. Do you enjoy writing one over the other when it comes to MG and YA? Why or why no preference?
SD: Sassy is geared to grades 3-4-5. Since I have the very successful books that feature young Black males in the six Ziggy books, I decided to focus on the younger girls in the Sassy books. Writer for a younger audience is fun, and a nice change of pace. Both audiences are demanding, however. They want books that engage them and capture their spirits.
BBS: When the fatigue sets in, the deadlines loom large what keeps you writing?
SD: I love this. Writing makes me happy. It’s not a job—it’s a passion. I’m very blessed. The words flow easily—sometimes faster than I can type them out. So I’m rarely tired of it, and I usually manage to make my deadlines. Well, most of the time!
I start with an idea, or a problem or a conflict, or even a situation that might be pertinent to the lives of young people, then the characters grow from that point. I try to make strong characters that change and develop and learn from their mistakes. I try to make characters so real that young people believe they are real people, and many do. I get letters from kids who ask for a character’s home phone number, or who are angry at me because of something that happened to one of the characters. It’s a thrilling, exciting process.
BBS: If you had one wish for young African American readers, what would it be?
SD: Read all the time. Read for pleasure and read for knowledge. Read to escape from problems and read to learn how to solve them. Read because you can. Our ancestors were beaten and even killed for daring to learn to read. Don’t let their sacrifice be for nothing. Honor them by reading all the time.
The Buzz on Draper’s Novels
“This action-packed, multifaceted, character-rich story describes the shocking realities of the slave trade and plantation life while portraying the perseverance, resourcefulness, and triumph of the human spirit” – School Library Journal on Copper Sun
” A High school basketball star struggles with guilt and depression following the drunk-driving accident that killed his best friend. Short chapters and alternating viewpoints provide “raw energy and intense emotion,” – Publisher’s Weekly on Tears of a Tiger
“The graduation scene, in which class president Keisha gives the closing speech, is moving and triumphant, showing Draper and her vibrant characters at their best” – Booklist on Darkness Before Dawn