Week 13 – Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

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“Eleven-year-old Stella is a deep thinker who often sneaks out of the house and writes under the starlight. Writing helps Stella makes sense of life in segregated 1932 Bumblebee, North Carolina. There’s plenty of action: cross burnings, house burnings, a snakebite, a near-drowning, and a beating. But at its core, this story is one of a supportive African American community facing tough times” (Schneider, 2015).

While this book is not technically a young adult title, it is one of many titles I’ve read for this class that could be considered “crossover” fiction. Much like Fairest by Gail Carson Levine, and El Deafo by Cece Bell (other titles I have reviewed on this blog), I feel as if this is a book that could be enjoyed by both children and teens. Where Fairest and El Deafo were much lighter and more suited for children, I feel as if Stella by Starlight is suited more for mature children and young teens (though I also thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult). It focuses on very serious historical issues, and deals with heavy themes such as racism and prejudice, which might be difficult for younger or weaker readers to understand.

The story focuses on Stella, a young girl growing up in the segregated south in the 1930s. Her small town of Bumblebee, North Carolina has been mostly peaceful in recent years, but trouble begins to brew the night she and her brother Jojo witness a clan rally taking place by the pond near their house. The Ku Klux Klan, angered at the prospect of African Americans being given the right to vote, have become much more active, setting Stella’s community on edge. This story, told from Stella’s perspective, presents the outrageous events of the 1930s through the eyes of an innocent child. While there is no murder or lynching in the story (though lynching is mentioned briefly), a great deal of the violence of this time period is shown: a black family’s house is burned down, Stella’s friend Tony is viciously attacked by grown white men, and a white doctor refuses to help Stella’s mother when she is bitten by a deadly snake. Overall, it is an excellent introduction for younger readers to the history of the segregated south; it is tastefully written, but does not skirt around the historical issues.

During my time working in the children’s section of a local bookstore, I was constantly being asked for new and exciting works of historical fiction for children. Unfortunately, I had never read much of this genre as a child, so I never had many suggestions. Lately, it seems as if more and more intriguing works of historical fiction are being written for children and teens, and I think that’s wonderful. Children, just like adults, need to know about our nation’s history, especially the darker parts that we don’t usually feel comfortable discussing. I was surprised at just how relevant this book is to our own time, as there is still a great deal of prejudice and racism in the country today. In the deep south especially, there are still heavily segregated communities, and areas where the two races almost never mingle. In writing fiction that focuses on this difficult part of our history, Sharon Draper is shedding light on a time period that, as much as we’d like to forget it, is a period that we absolutely have to talk about today.

Besides the heavy themes in the novel, I also really enjoyed the narration provided by Stella. Because she is young, Stella is a little naive, but she has  wisdom and intuition beyond her years. Take the following quote, for example, as Stella is attempting to write about herself: “Besides, sometimes things that look pretty, like secret fire in the darkness, are really pretty ugly” (Draper, 2015, p. 67). In this quote, Stella moves from discussing her looks to talking about the burning cross she saw at the beginning of the novel. As the story progresses, we see this idea played out over and over again: the pristine white hospital has a sign on it that says “white patients only,” and the doctor’s beautifully decorated saddle and freshly pressed KKK robes symbolize the darkness and hatred that comes from racism. That is a powerful connection for an eleven year old girl to make, but one that is absolutely believable during a time when even African American children had to fear for their safety around white people. As I said before, these issues are still extremely relevant to our own society; while we have made great progress, racism is still alive and well, and it shows in both the formation of the Black Lives Matter group and the increased interest in issues of police brutality and white-washing in Hollywood.

The reason I believe that this book is suited for both children and teens is because of the darker issues it deals with. While the blow is softened a little by the child’s point of view, the realities of history are not sugar-coated. The white doctor (and revealed member of the KKK) does not mend his ways at the end; in fact, it is revealed that he is abusive to his own wife and daughter as well as being highly racist. These are extremely heavy issues for a children’s book, but issues that absolutely need to be discussed. I would gladly use this book in an elementary or middle school history class, as it is an excellent book for starting a dialogue about racism and prejudice. This book would also be a wonderful addition to any Black History Month display, as it deals with a part of history that is not often talked about in children’s fiction. While some parents might feel uncomfortable with their children reading this book, I think it’s crucial that they sit down and read it for themselves before deciding, as this book has the potential to be an excellent teaching tool for issues of race and racism.

References:

Draper, S. M. (2015). Stella by Starlight. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Schneider, D. (2015, Fall). Draper, Sharon M.: Stella by Starlight. The Horn Book Guide, 26(2), 80.

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