Saturday, December 24, 2016

Stella by Starlight by Sharon M Draper

"Red fire. Black cross. White hoods. They're here. Now,' ... It was 1932, in the little town ... Every negro family in Bumblebee knew the unwritten rules."


I love the name Bumblebee North Carolina - there is no such town but I felt compelled to check - when you read Stella by Starlight you will feel as though you have visited this small community in 1932 so vivid is the writing of Sharon M Draper.

Every aspect of Stella's life is affected by the racial discrimination of this time.  There is only one Negro doctor for example.  Tony, the son of Dr Hawkins, observers : "It's hard to live like there's a boot in your back every second of your life." The white doctor even has a sign on his door WHITE PATIENTS ONLY.  When Stella's mother, Georgia, is bitten by a snake he refuses to help and Stella's mother almost dies.  These are scenes towards the end of the book and I actually had to stop reading because I was so afraid for Stella's precious mum.

Stella loves to read and wants to write but feels she lacks the skill.  Another unfair aspect of life in 1932, Stella is not allowed to visit the public library but she does have writing all over her house.  Her mother papers the walls with newspaper articles.  Her father reads three newspapers each day "Gotta know what's goin' on in the world,' he reminded Stella when she'd ask why one paper wasn't enough." But Stella is an observant child and she notices "colored people were rarely mentioned in those ... newspapers."  When she and a friend look through the Sears and Roebuck catalog she says "Did you notice - I don't see eve one single person who looks like us in this big old book."

Apart from the horror of the Klan and the extreme fear felt by the citizens of color in this community another aspect of this book relates to rights and in particular the right to vote.  If you are working on a unit about democracy you might like to use chapter 22.  Three men from the town, including Stella's father, travel to Amherst to register to vote.  Stella goes along with them.  The men are ridiculed by the town official and then told to take a fifteen minute written test. They even have to pay for this privilege.  Meanwhile some white men walk into the same office and all that is required a simple signature on a form.  Stella is enraged. Then the men from Bumblebee are told to come back in a week.

"Mr Spencer sat down on the floor. After a moment, Stella's father and Pastor Patton joined him." They sit on the floor of the office until their test is graded.  The consequence of this action is truly awful - the Klan burn down the Spencer home and endanger their thirteen children.  You will cheer, though, when you read how the whole town including some of the white citizens unite to assist the family.  Stella is called a hero when finds six year old Hazel who has run away in fear and the Spencer's give her a typewriter which came with the donations given to the family after the fire. Using a typewriter gives Stella the motivation to keep working on her writing.

All through this book we see Stella's writing progress but she is full of self doubt. I love the words of encouragement from Stella's mother :

"I'm a dunce?' Stella said, fear clutching her chest.
'Quite the opposite. You are an amazing thinker - a gemstone hiding inside a rock."

Stella is a very talented writer.  Here are some samples from her work :

"I've got thick black hair, and bushy caterpillar-looking eyebrows. When I look in the mirror, I don't see pretty, I just see me."

"At the mill ... they take sawdust and turn that into paper. Those big old trees become books and notebooks and newspapers. Dust becomes words. I like that."

"My papa voted. He is a pebble. Lots of pebbles make a landslide, right? His vote counted."


Watch this video where Sharon explains her family inspiration for this important story which is a snapshot of history.  Click here to listen to an audio sample from Chapter 17.  Here is a thoughtful review which will give you more plot details.  The author web site will give you further insight into this important and award winning book.  Here are a set of teaching notes.  If I have not convinced you that Stella by Starlight is a special and important book - read this review from the Nerdy Book Club - now!!

After or even before reading Stella by Starlight I recommend you read the picture book Goin' someplace special by Patricia McKissack and the novels Kissy Ann Stamps, Mississippi bridge by Mildred D Taylor and Walking to the bus rider blues by Harriet Robinet.

Stella by Starlight is not at all like Sharon's earlier book Out of my mind but you will want to read this one too I am sure. It was one of my top books this year.

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