Sharon Draper is one of the young adult authors we at YARN most wanted to talk to this year, and we tracked her down—in Egypt! Read on to find out more about her award-winning books, get some helpful writing tips, and see what else she’s got in the pipeline. As with the rest of her writing, her answers to our questions were quite moving, so you might want to have some tissues handy.
YARN: What does your writing process consist of, from the idea to publication? Has your process been different for different books?
SD: The process for me is not the procedure I tell students to use. Writing learners need to learn the basics, just like a swimming learner needs to first learn how to blow bubbles in the water. So I might skip the traditional outlining and jump right into the deep water of the story. I usually start with a bubble, a blip on my imagination, the tiniest of ideas. It grows as I think about it, develop it in my mind, and enlarge the concepts around it. I jot down notes, look up related ideas, and expand my original concept. Finally, I’m ready to start witting. It is skeletal, under-developed, and decidedly not ready for prime time. So I revise and revise and revise. It grows. I add sensory imagery where needed, explanations, back stories, sometimes adding or deleting a chapter. I focus on characters. Who is this person? What are his or her desires, needs, problems? I try to make each character unique and memorable. After an unbelievable amount of revising, I send it to my editor who says, “It’s a good start—let me offer some revisions!” And so we go until it is ready. Like a perfectly baked brown-crusted pie with juices simmering from the edges, it is ready.
YARN: Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing? What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before the due date?
SD: Yes. Absolutely. It’s awful when the words just won’t come and the need to say them, to create them, is like breathing. So I take a break. I do something else. I clean closets! I listen to loud blues music. (Yep, the blues!) I let my mind be free of the story until it is ready to come back to me. It always does. To students, I tell them to do the same. Take a short break. Eat something. Writing is sensory and food is a good stimulant to verbal expression. Try chocolate! Just don’t stall too long. After a while, it’s not writer’s block—it is procrastination!
YARN: You are a decorated and honored teacher as well as a writer. How does your teaching inform your writing, and vice versa?
SD: Since I taught adolescents for over twenty years, I feel very comfortable with them. They’ve gone way ahead of me in their ability to master the newest tech trend, but the essence of what it means to be fifteen, for example, has not changed. They don’t actually fight who they are, but they certainly question their identity, their purpose, their very essence. They are searching for that existential moment (even though most of them probably haven’t the foggiest idea of what that term means!) They want to fit in. They want to stand out. They want to be noticed. They want to be ignored. They want to know everything. They want to know nothing. They want to be loved. That’s the character I like to start with. Then I dress him up with a life, a problem, a conflict, a sorry, a joy, and maybe even a fight. But his essence should scream out and connect with the young person who happens to pick up the book to read it. I loved being a teacher. I loved my students. And I love writing for them.
YARN: What’s it like when your students read your work? Have any of them told you—gulp!—that they’re not fans?
SD: Sure, I’ve been told that many times. But it’s okay if they don’t like the books—there are zillions of authors, and there is a book out there to please the taste of everyone. I often recommend books of other authors to students who are not crazy about what I write. Many young readers tell me, “I never liked to read” or “I’ve never read a whole book before” but “I read your book in one night and I couldn’t wait to read the others.” They like the reality and the honesty of the stories and locations and characters.
Many of the 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.
But here is just one of hundreds of examples of students who did like the books:
Hey, last week in Ms. Campbell’s class we started to read “Forged by Fire.” So I was all like cool that means I can get some ZZZZZZZZZs in before next class. But as she started reading it the more a got in to it. Before that you couldn’t pay me to sit down and read a book there was no way around it. No book or poem has ever made me cry but that one did. Well I just wanted to let you know that you are the best writer I have ever read any thing from. Your books have really touched me.
YARN: You write about a lot of heavy duty subjects, and we can imagine that writing about them could get a little depressing. How do you set aside your material at the end of your writing time?
SD: I don’t think the stories are depressing. They are realistic. And when I watch the news or pick up my phone for headlines and updates, I often find so much more sorrow in the reality I see around the world and in this country. Death, abuse, pain, hunger, loneliness—of children. The characters in my books are not real, but perhaps their difficulties can help a very real person who needs encouragement, regardless of their situation in life. 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. 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.
YARN: You’ve written in various genres—poetry, chapter books, nonfiction, YA—that encompass over thirty books. When you are writing, how do you approach each one? Do you have a particular favorite and/or one you feel most comfortable with?
SD: I probably like fiction the best—realistic fiction and historical fiction. That way I can tell a real story, but make all the characters fictional. When telling a story about long ago, I can make history come alive without a textbook. Characters live in a time that might be remote or distant for my readers, but because people are people regardless of when they are born, I can create characters that my readers can relate to. Stella, in “Stella by Starlight” for example, is eleven years old and is failing fifth grade. But she lives in a small town in 1932 and the historical events of her time intersect in her life. Readers learn history and never even realize it. I love that!
YARN: We at YARN were stunned by the vivid, visceral details in your YA historical, “Copper Sun,” and the way it demands readers to acknowledge that inconceivable things have occurred in this country’s not-too-distant past. What kind of research did you do for this book, and how did it help you capture those moments you portray so realistically?
SD: I wrote it after my first trip to Africa, which I loved. I’ve been back several times since then. It took ten years to complete the book. (Of course I didn’t work on it every single day. I even wrote two other books while “Copper Sun” was emerging.) If I had used all I learned in my research, the book would have been a thousand pages long! So I had to decide what was pertinent, and what would be effective. My inspiration came from the pain of the millions of people just like Amari who suffered and somehow survived. I could not tell all their stories, so I focused on just one. When I crawled through “the door of no return” in Ghana, the walls of which were stones that had been rubbed smooth by the thousands of bodies that had been pushed through it, I knew I had to tell this story. Amari came to me through that passageway.
YARN: You’ve written a little about the role of music in “Out of my Mind,” which made us wonder what songs you listened to while writing the book, either while you were writing or before, to get you in the mood.
SD: I know that many people need music to help them think and learn, but when I write, I like absolute silence. But Melody, whose very name is musical, needed music, as well as other sensory input, to enhance her life. She has synesthesia, an interesting condition, which causes one to see colors and taste sounds. It enhances her life, which lacks so much. I think I use sensory imagery quite a bit in every book. We are sensory beings, unconsciously responding to stimuli, so enhancing those essences as I write helps me to connect to my readers on a deeply meaningful level.
YARN: It has been six years since we last heard from Melody. Have you ever considered how she would be navigating her adolescence? What is she up to nowadays?
SD: I get this question almost every single day from students. And no, I don’t think I’ll take her to her teens. But I did meet a very real young woman a few years ago who was so much like Melody all grown up that it was incredible. She was brilliant, witty, chatty, and independent. She was first in her class. Yes, first. She had dreams for her future and had already decided on her college major. But she could not walk or talk or do very much for herself. She had an amazing family and support system and the last I heard she was finishing her third year of college. Her life gave me hope and inspiration. She didn’t need to be fictionalized. Somebody needed to make a movie of her life! So no, there will not be a sequel for Miss Melody. When I was a kid, sometimes the best books were the ones that had no sequel, the stories and characters I will never forget. That’s what I want “Out of my Mind” to be.
YARN: Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little about what else you’re working on?
SD: Well, my trip to Egypt inspired all kinds of ideas about a girl living in Luxor or Cairo, maybe in the palace of one of the Pharaohs. That one will take tons of research. But on the table now is a book about a girl who will steal your heart and break your heart at the same time. She’s unforgettable. And coming soon, I hope. There is no pub date yet.
Other Books/YA stuff:
YARN: Do you feel like movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks are getting more books by POC published and into the hands of readers of color? Beyond the Lee & Low Books Diversity in Publishing Baseline Survey and some pro-active reactions, what else can be done in the publishing industry to help ensure POC writers can tell their stories?
SD: When I was a child, I was an avid reader—I gobbled them all. And 99% of the books I read had no diversity at all. None. It didn’t even occur to me that this was wrong because my world was decorated in shades of white. No one ever encouraged me to write, or gave me validation that I had potential to pursue that avenue. It was years before I discovered books by African American authors and began to devour them. And still many more years before I began to write. So I think we need to start in the elementary schools—encouraging the kids who like to read to think about being writers. We need to hone them and train them and let them tell us what is missing in the books they are reading. We need to give them what I never got. So we must continue in our journey to put books with characters of color in the hands of those children who need self-validation and encouragement. The bottom line is that the next generation of writers, already an increasingly diverse group, will be the changers of the status quo. But the young ones will not find their voices unless they have been encouraged to read the music of their culture and then encouraged to sing their own songs.
YARN: What do you think YA is currently missing? Where are its strengths and its weaknesses? How has the genre involved since you’ve begun writing?
SD: The field of young adult literature is growing and expanding and evolving, much like the teens that read it. I find much of it is powerful and will encourage a reader to think or reflect or grow. I’m concerned about the removal of barriers in some of the books, however. Too many books have uncontrolled vulgarity of language and plot developments. Teens by nature “push the edges.” The writers of their novels don’t need to do that to impress their readers. A quietly closed door is a much more powerful sex scene than a lurid description. A carefully placed angry expletive is much more effective than a character who curses in every bit of dialogue. I guess my standards are old school, but good writing doesn’t need to be dipped in purple. Good writing should shine and should touch the heart of the reader without the expletives and prurience. I have met thousands of young readers over the years, and most of them just want really well told tale. They want adventure, love, humor, twists of plot, great characters. Not many of them really desire what some authors are giving them. Just as TV commercials and shows and movies themselves have pushed the edges of language and decency, so have the books we give to our children. We need to stop doing that and focus on quality of tale and text.
YARN: If you could write a YA novel with any other author who would it be? What would it be about?
SD: I once did a book with other people. It was not a pleasant experience and I would never, ever do it again. When I write, the words flow easily—sometimes faster than I can type them out. 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. And I can’t share that with anyone else. It’s just me and the thoughts that explode from my head.
Sharon Draper is a New York Times best-seller, with over thirty award-winning novels, and is a five-time Coretta Scott King Award winner. She has served as the National Teacher of the Year, has been honored at the White House six times, was selected by the US State Department to be a literary ambassador to the children of Africa and China, and was named a National Book Awards judge for Young Literature in 2014.