Kojo For Kids welcomes author Sharon Draper to the show on Monday, June 29, 2020 at 12:30 p.m. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.

Sharon Draper was not just a beloved teacher, she was the National Teacher of the Year. And one of the reasons she received that honor is that she took her students very seriously — so seriously, in fact, that when one of them suggested she enter a short story writing contest, she did. And she won. And a famous author — Alex Haley — noticed and encouraged her to keep writing.

Now the New York Times best-selling author has more than 32 young adult titles to her name, books that don’t shy away from the tough topics. Her characters have to contend with addiction, bullies, death and their own disabilities.

But it’s hard to come away from a Sharon Draper book feeling down. Not every story has a happy ending, but she also feels strongly that readers should enjoy her books.

Maybe you are already a Sharon Draper fan. Maybe you’re thinking of picking up one of her books. Either way, listen in and give us a call!

This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!

Produced by Lauren Markoe

Guests

  • Sharon Draper Author and former National Teacher of the Year; @sharonmdraper

Transcript

  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Sharon Draper was a good teacher, a really good teacher, the National Teacher of the Year. But as much as she loved teaching, one of her students expected that she was also very talented in another way and challenged her to enter a national writing competition. Sharon Draper won first place in that contest and caught the attention of a very favorite writer, Alex Haley, who encouraged her to keep writing. More than 30 novels later, Sharon Draper is now a famous writer herself.

  • 12:32:35

    KOJO NNAMDIAnd she's here to answer your questions, but only if you're a kid. Adult are welcome to listen, but on Kojo for Kids, we take kid callers only. So you can start calling now. Sharon Draper's a New York Times' Best Selling author and the former National Teacher of the Year. Her books include "Out of My Mind," "Stella by Starlight," "Blended" and "The Sassy Series." Sharon Draper, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:56

    SHARON DRAPERWell, I'm delighted to be here. This is wonderful.

  • 12:32:59

    NNAMDIIt just occurred to me that having been a teacher, you may have been listening to the part of the conversation that we were having before. How would you feel now about having to go back into a classroom?

  • 12:33:10

    DRAPERI think it would be quite a challenge. The online learning, the questions about, you know, health and safety, you know, the dealing with children, it's very, very difficult. And I'm extremely supportive of the teachers and their efforts in what they're doing, because they care and they want the kids to learn and they want to teach, but it's so hard right now. It is really, really difficult.

  • 12:33:38

    NNAMDIDifficult both for teachers and for parents alike. But what were you like as a kid? Where did you grow up, and what did you like to do?

  • 12:33:46

    DRAPERI great up in Cleveland, Ohio, and I had a mom and a dad and a brother and a sister. And, you know, actually a very perfect childhood. There was a library walking distance from my house, and we went every single Saturday to the library, where I checked out five or 10 books, because that was the max that you could get, and I read them all. And I took them back and I read some more. (laugh) And so I had read just about everything on the kids' side of our library by the time I was 11 or 12.

  • 12:34:16

    NNAMDIDid you take them back on time? That was my problem. (laugh) I'd take five or six books out of the library at a time, and I could never get them all back on time. (laugh)

  • 12:34:25

    DRAPEROh, I got them back, because I wanted more. I was a reader. I did not know I was going to be a writer, but I think in order to be a writer you have to have read a lot of books and have a lot of words and ideas in your head.

  • 12:34:39

    NNAMDIIndeed, because you really love to read, and apparently, were reading well above your grade level. I heard you got a special privilege at your local library. What was that?

  • 12:34:49

    DRAPEROh, yes. Well, I had read everything on the elementary side, so the librarian said, go for it. And she gave me an adult card and let me check out books on the adult side. Oh, that was glorious. (laugh) I discovered so many wonderful things on the adult side of the library.

  • 12:35:05

    NNAMDIWhat were your favorite books as a kid?

  • 12:35:07

    DRAPERI don't really have any favorites. I liked historical fiction. I know that I leaned toward that, because it was so much easier than reading a history book. I could read a story about a girl during the Civil War and learn all about the Civil War because the author had already done the research. So, I like historical fiction, but it was mostly fiction. Very -- not so much nonfiction, but mostly fiction books. And that's what formulated my eventual writing, I imagine.

  • 12:35:40

    NNAMDIYou were a teacher for a long time. What subject and what grades did you teach? And what were you like in the classroom?

  • 12:35:46

    DRAPERI taught English Language Arts, which kind of covers everything, reading, writing, literature, poetry. I loved teaching poetry. Kids didn't like it so much at first, but I started off with drums. I'd bring drums in the classroom and played drumbeats. And they said, this lady's crazy, but poetry is rhythm. And so once they understood that poetry is rhythm, then I could open them up to poetry. So, we read lots of books, and we read all of the classics, because those were required. And then we read a lot of other books from the library that were not required, but should have been.

  • 12:36:27

    NNAMDIYou weren't just a good teacher. You were the National Teacher of the Year chosen from all the top teachers in all 50 states. That's a huge deal. What did you do to get that honor?

  • 12:36:38

    DRAPER(laugh) I don't know. My mother says (laugh) -- the way my mother tells it is very different, but there was a local teacher of the year, and then there was state teacher of the year. And then each of the state teachers of the year had to go through a vetting process, and they chose me for the National Teacher of the Year. It was a wonderful year. I got to go to almost every single state. I got to go to many, many countries.

  • 12:37:09

    DRAPERAnd I talked to teachers and students and librarians. And I saw schools and schools in jails and schools in apartment buildings and schools in high rises and rich schools and poor schools. But all of them were the same, because there were teachers who cared, and there were kids who needed to learn. And once you make that connection between teachers and kids, you've got it made. I really enjoyed that year.

  • 12:37:36

    NNAMDISarah asked: Do your books reflect you and your life in any way?

  • 12:37:41

    DRAPERI think every writer has to -- can only write about experiences that they're familiar with. I couldn't write a story about someone going to the moon, because I've never been to the moon, and I could only read about it, so it wouldn't be realistic. So, things that -- you know, life experiences, things that happen in families, things that happen in schools, tragedies in schools, tragedies in families. Happy books are nice, but books where terrible things happen are often more intriguing for the readers.

  • 12:38:16

    NNAMDIYeah, we'll get to that in a second. You began to write fiction after one of your students gave you a challenge. What was that challenge, and what was the result?

  • 12:38:24

    DRAPER(laugh) This was not one of my best students. He said basically, hey, lady, you think you're so bad, why don't you write something sometime? Those were his exact words. And he gave me an application for -- it was the Ebony magazine Gertrude Johnson writing contest that they used to do. And so I wrote a story...

  • 12:38:48

    NNAMDI(overlapping) For those of our listeners who are not familiar with Ebony magazine, Ebony magazine was produced by the Johnson Publishing Company, hence the name Johnson. But go ahead.

  • 12:38:56

    DRAPERYes, and it was -- in its time, was stellar, and in every family's living room that I knew. And, anyway, they had this contest, and I entered the contest. And I didn't think much about it. Didn't take a long time writing the story, but it won first prize, and it got published in a copy of Ebony magazine. And I got to -- you know, I got my picture in the paper, and I got all this notoriety and I said, gee, I can write. (laugh) And so I eventually took that story, and it's chapter one now of "Forged by Fire."

  • 12:39:40

    NNAMDIWow. But then you encountered what all writers encounter and get to know very well, rejection.

  • 12:39:51

    DRAPERNot too much.

  • 12:39:52

    NNAMDIOh.

  • 12:39:53

    DRAPERNot too much rejection. Most of the books that I sent in -- well, after the initial rejection, the very first book, it took a while for somebody to say yes. I did get, well, yeah, about 20 or 30 rejections on the very first one. But once that first book came out, I didn't get any rejections after that.

  • 12:40:19

    NNAMDIFortunately for you. The teenagers in your books deal with some serious issues. Melody has cerebral palsy, Jericho faces intense peer pressure, Stella's town is threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. Why do you give your characters such a tough time?

  • 12:40:35

    DRAPERBecause I think that is what brings in a reader. If the character in the book has a challenge, then the reader can identify with that. Lots of young people who read my books are going through some very difficult challenges in their life. And when they read about somebody else who finds a challenge, meets that challenged and manages to figure out a way how to survive in spite of it, gives young people inspiration, I hope. So, I write about kids with problems. You know, happy children are not -- don't make good books. Children who have problems and overcome those problems are, I think, more powerful stories.

  • 12:41:20

    NNAMDIEleven-year-old Jack from Washington, D.C. asks what your advice is about writers block and how you deal with it.

  • 12:41:28

    DRAPERHi, Jack. I think that if you were writing and you get writers block you need to go do something else. You need to go outside. You need to get some exercise. You need to get some fresh year. You need to put the writing down and go do something else. Me, I eat ice cream, vanilla ice cream. (laugh) That's my inspiration and my excuse. So, whenever I get stuck, it's time for an ice cream break.

  • 12:41:54

    NNAMDIWell, hopefully, you don't get stuck a whole lot, because then you'd be consuming a lot of ice cream. (laugh)

  • 12:41:58

    DRAPER(laugh) Yes.

  • 12:42:01

    NNAMDILet's talk about one of your works of historical fiction, "Stella by Starlight," which takes place nearly a century ago, but it's also your family's history. What inspired you to write it?

  • 12:42:11

    DRAPERWhen I was a little girl we used to go every single summer to North Carolina to my grandmother's farm. And it was so different. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, big city. And my grandmother's town was a little bitty town nobody ever even heard of. And, you know, there were dirt roads and there was -- everything moved slowly. Grandma fixed lemonade, and we sat on the porch. I said, what are we going to do next, grandma? We're going to eat (sic) the lemonade. We're going to just sit here. You know, there was a slowness and a wonderful pace of life.

  • 12:42:49

    DRAPERAnd so because I was so -- I loved going there every summer, and all of my memories of what it was like sitting on that front porch, walking down the road, that became the setting for the story. And then I had to do research to find problems for the story for this character to have. So, every good historical fiction has to have the proper research so I had to look up, I had to find what was actually going on in 1932 in North Carolina. That newspaper that I mentioned in the book is a real newspaper. All of the things -- so, it takes a long time to do historical fiction, to make it real, and then to make the character realistic, so that young people care.

  • 12:43:37

    NNAMDIYou also write poetry. I'm wondering if you would read one of your poems for us, this one called "Miracle Child."

  • 12:43:45

    DRAPER"Miracle Child." I wrote this many, many years ago, but this was -- the inspiration for this was that all children are special. And sometimes they don't feel that they are. So, I made each child dressed in a different color, but that could be skin color, that could be the color of their dress or their jacket. It could be anything to show that we are all different, and yet we are all special.

  • 12:44:16

    DRAPER“I'm a miracle child dressed in black, I'm dark sweet licorice, an ebony melt snack. I'm a miracle child dressed in brown, I wear cocoa and fudge and a chocolate gown. I'm a miracle child dressed in tan, I sizzle bronze steam in a crunchy baked pan. I'm a miracle child dressed in gold, I'm honey bright liquid sweet and caramel rolled. I'm a miracle child dressed in cream, I'm fluffed and I'm sprinkled wrapped in sugar-dipped dream. I'm a miracle child baked with smiles on my face, I'm grilled to perfection dipped in gravy and grace. I'm a miracle child.” I think all children are miracles, and they need to feel that and be appreciated as that.

  • 12:45:00

    NNAMDIExactly right. Sharon Draper reading "Miracle Child." At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, your books kept popping up on lists of books for kids to read since they've got so much time on their hands. Now, your books are popping up on lists of books to read to learn about racism and bigotry. How do you think your books can be helpful to people during these historic, if troubled times?

  • 12:45:23

    DRAPERI think any time you can find a story that you can relate to that you can say, this character is going through what I am going through, I think, is important. "Blended," for example, the main character Isabella is -- she's biracial, and her parents are divorced. And she spends one week at mom's house and one week at dad's house. So, she's blended, but she's also split. And so her story and her struggle of trying to find herself as a young adolescent is the story, and a lot of young people can identify with that.

  • 12:46:04

    DRAPERI've had kids write to me and say, my mom and dad are divorced. We have the same thing. They don't understand what it's like to be me, to be half of mom and half of dad, and have to please both of them. A lot of times, parents don't realize how difficult that is for children.

  • 12:46:21

    NNAMDIYou were an English teacher, and I'm thinking that you may have taught Shakespeare's play "Romeo and Juliet." But, as a writer, you created your own version of the story. Tell us about it, and why you decided to write it.

  • 12:46:33

    DRAPER"Romeo and Juliet" is probably one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. And so I wrote "Romiette and Julio," which was kind of a reversal on the story, where Romiette is the main character in the book, the girl. She's African-American. Julio is Hispanic, and they kind of like each other at school. And so they have a problem simply because of their racial differences.

  • 12:47:09

    DRAPERAnd this was written long before all of the racial upheaval that we've had recently, but it's still very applicable, because kids don't care. Kids see each other for how they really are. Kids don't look for color the way sometimes adults do. Kids like each other because they like each other. And I think that's real important.

  • 12:47:33

    NNAMDI"Out of My Mind" is one of your more popular books. It's heroin is Melody, who has cerebral palsy, and cannot walk or speak but who wants to make herself heard. Why did you write that book?

  • 12:47:45

    DRAPERThere are a number of young people who -- and I've met so many of them -- who have no voice. And whether they have a disability or whether they are just -- just feel silenced, there are -- they want to be heard. It's important that they be heard. It's important that teacher realize that every single child has a heart and a mind and a desire and a wish and a will that sometimes they cannot express.

  • 12:48:18

    DRAPERSo, Melody stand for all of those kids who don't have a chance to speak up or to say what it is that's in their heart and on their mind. There are -- I mean, Melody has a physical disability, but there's an awful lot of kids who are silenced because of so many other things that are going on in their life. And I worry about kids who are at home. And, you know, since the pandemic and schools have been shut, that they don't have an outlet. They don't have any place to go. They don't have any respite or rescue from perhaps difficult home situations. So, I hope that Melody is a voice for them.

  • 12:49:01

    NNAMDISharon Draper, with any book of yours, what do you say when readers ask, what lesson did you want me to learn from this book?

  • 12:49:07

    DRAPER(laugh) Absolutely nothing, (laugh) I think if you want to teach a lesson, you write a Sunday School book. (laugh)

  • 12:49:16

    NNAMDI(laugh) I agree wholeheartedly.

  • 12:49:17

    DRAPERNo. No. What the characters learn in the books, the reader can take it or leave it. I don't care. That's not my point. Kids ask me that all the time, what'd you want me to learn from this? I said, I don't know. What did you learn? Well, I learned this. Okay, good, that's what it was.

  • 12:49:35

    DRAPERYou know, I put it out there, and whatever the reader takes from the story is wonderful and perfect and good, because that's what you got out of it, so that's what you were meant to get out of it. But any author who purposely writes a story that says, thou shall not and this is what you better do, I don't do that. I don't do that.

  • 12:49:57

    NNAMDISharon Draper's a New York Times Best-Selling author and a former National Teacher of the Year. Her books include "Out of My Mind," "Stella by Starlight," "Blended" and "The Sassy Series." Would you read another one of your poems which is a call and response poem called "Readers Rap"? And please, please, please, please let me participate. (laugh)

  • 12:50:17

    DRAPEROkay. Yes. You've got your copy there?

  • 12:50:20

    NNAMDIYep.

  • 12:50:21

    DRAPEROkay. I use this a lot of times at the end of an assembly. Oh, I miss assemblies. I miss being able to go to schools and have, you know, 100 kids, you know, gathered around while we're reading and talking and celebrating. But this is often a poem that I would use at the very end to kind of inspire them to read. So, I'll read the first part. Say hey, hey, I read a book today.

  • 12:50:46

    NNAMDISay hey, hey, I read a book today.

  • 12:50:48

    DRAPERSay yo, yo, I'm gonna read some moe.

  • 12:50:50

    NNAMDISay yo, yo, I'm gonna read some moe.

  • 12:50:53

    DRAPERIn a book, I find the magic, in a book I find the key. When I read my brain is busy, when I read my mind is free. Say hey, hey, I read a book today.

  • 12:51:00

    NNAMDISay hey, hey, I read a book today.

  • 12:51:03

    DRAPERSay yo, yo, I'm gonna read some moe.

  • 12:51:05

    NNAMDISay yo, yo, I'm gonna read some moe.

  • 12:51:07

    DRAPERIn a book I find the answers, in a book I find the clues. When I read I am the captain, when I read I never lose. Say hey, hey, I read a book today.

  • 12:51:14

    NNAMDISay hey, hey, I read a book today.

  • 12:51:17

    DRAPERSay yo, yo, I'm gonna read some moe.

  • 12:51:19

    NNAMDISay yo, you, I'm gonna read some moe.

  • 12:51:22

    DRAPERWith a book I have the victory, with a book I have a friend. With a book I am a champion, with a book I always win. Say hey, hey, I read a book today.

  • 12:51:31

    NNAMDISay hey, hey, I read a book today.

  • 12:51:33

    DRAPERSay yo, yo, I'm gonna read some moe.

  • 12:51:36

    NNAMDISay yo, yo, I'm gonna read some moe. Sharon Draper and the alleged host of this broadcast, (laugh) reading one of her poems. Thank you very much.

  • 12:51:46

    DRAPERYou did wonderful.

  • 12:51:47

    NNAMDIIt was "Readers Rap." Right, I've been practicing a lot. (laugh) Can we look forward to another Sharon Draper book soon?

  • 12:51:55

    DRAPERYes. You would think, during the pandemic, I would have written 17 books by now, but mostly I've just learned how to cook. (laugh)

  • 12:52:05

    NNAMDI(laugh) And eat ice cream, eat more ice cream.

  • 12:52:06

    DRAPERRight. Yes. And ice cream, yes. But I am working on something that hopefully will be finished by the end of this calendar year.

  • 12:52:14

    NNAMDIWhat is your work process?

  • 12:52:17

    DRAPERI get up early in the morning, and I work, because my brain is fresh early. And I work and I revise. And the hardest part of writing is revising. It's easy to write a story, but then you have to go back and you have to read every single page and every single paragraph and fix it and revise it and make sure that it's clear and make sure that you didn't overstate or understate or you didn't leave something out or this character makes sense. So, revision is the hardest part of writing, and that takes up 80 percent of my writing time, is the revising.

  • 12:52:55

    NNAMDIEven though you're no longer a teacher, you still have a homework assignment for our listeners. What is it?

  • 12:53:02

    DRAPERI do. Well, because this -- 2020 is a year like no other. And I think in 2040, we will all look back and say, oh, my goodness, do you remember 2020? So, I want young people -- and adults, as well -- to write their memories of 2020. Start with how it started off as a normal year and how, in March, things started to change. How that changed their life. What changed for you? You know, what does it mean not to have to go to school? Yay, there's no school. And then it's like, oh, I miss school. And, you know, what changes happened in your family? What was it like being stuck with your little brother every single day for months and months at a time?

  • 12:53:54

    DRAPERSo, I want young people to write a journal of this year, of 2020. And then, in a year or two years or five years, when you go back and read that, you're going to say, oh my goodness, this was an important year. I'm so glad I wrote it down because I would not have remembered. I have been keeping a journal of this year, and I think everybody should do that, because this is a year to remember.

  • 12:54:19

    NNAMDIIt's a unique year indeed. None of your books has yet been made into a movie. Do you think that could happen? Which do you think would work particularly well as a movie?

  • 12:54:28

    DRAPERWell, there's been some sniffles around "Out of My Mind" as a movie. But the movie industry is shut down, too, so nobody's doing anything. But there has at least been some interest. I would love to see all of them as movies, but a lot of times, young people ask me, how come this book isn't a movie? And I said, when you read it can you see the pictures in your mind? They say, yeah. I said, well, that's the movie. So, sometimes, the movie that is in your mind, as a reader when you read a book, is more powerful. Because, a lot of times, when they make a movie and we go see it and we say, oh, I like the book better. So...

  • 12:55:12

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Sharon Draper, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:55:15

    DRAPERThis was delightful. Thank you so much for having me.

  • 12:55:21

    NNAMDIMore delightful for me. I got to be a performance poet. Sharon Draper is a New York Times Best-Selling author and a former National Teacher of the Year. Thank you so much for joining us. Kojo for Kids with author Sharon Draper was produced by Lauren Markoe, and our conversation about how Fairfax Schools plan to reopen was produced by Cydney Grannan.

  • 12:55:38

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, earlier this month the Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ employees from sex discrimination in the workplace. We look at how the decision will impact employees in the Washington region. Then we'll talk about another high court ruling preserving, at least for the time being, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. We'll sit down with local DACA recipients to hear their reactions to the decision, as well as their plans for the future. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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