This month, we talk to author Sharon Draper about her novel, Blended. She talks to us about handling difficult topics that reflect the struggles and mirror the aspirations of her readers.
Want to catch up? Check out last month’s Ink Splat here.
This month, Sharon Draper has challenged us to use our senses as inspiration.
“When I was teaching, my favorite writing prompts involved nature. When the weather was nice, we’d go outside and write.
So try this: Go outside. If it’s snowing or raining, dress appropriately. Then use your senses. Describe the smells around you, the sounds you hear. Look at tiny details like the pattern on a leaf or the fuzz on a caterpillar or the sound of a bird. Then take it from there. Create a character and describe how he or she thinks and feels, what the character does and says. Limit your piece to one person in one moment of time. That will force you to look closely and write with precision.”
Aim for between 350 and 1000 words. Submit your response by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You might be published on our website!
An Interview with Sharon Draper
When did you realize you wanted to be an author?
When I was in third grade I wrote something called “Clouds,” in which I described them as looking like bunnies, if I remember. That was NOT a life-altering moment, although I was very proud when it got posted on the school bulletin board.
I remember writing assignments always being easy for me in English classes, and getting a Five on my AP Writing exam. But that wasn’t life-changing, either. Not yet.
I remember my college professors telling me my scholarly writing was “too flowery.” I had trouble writing boring papers.
I taught English Language Arts for twenty years, always encouraging my students to write well, but it had never occurred to me to write anything myself. When a student challenged me to enter a writing contest, for some reason I actually sent something in.
And it won. First prize out of thousands of entries. I got published in a national magazine. I think that was the “aha” moment. That was when it finally dawned on me that perhaps I might be good at writing.
Your books focus on a multitude of difficult subjects, such as racism, peer pressure, abuse, and more. What drives you towards this sort of subject matter? How do you balance sensitivity with a critical analysis of these issues?
When I watch the news or pick up my phone for headlines and updates, I often find so much sorrow in the reality I see around the world and in this country. Death, abuse, pain, hunger, loneliness—of children. My readers face racism, peer pressure, and abuse. These kids need a voice, a source of hope. 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 sugar plum 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.
Can you speak a bit about the importance of representation, particularly in youth literature?
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 story, 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.
Your most recent novel, Blended, focuses on eleven-year-old Isabella as she navigates school, a difficult home life, and piano. In what ways do you see yourself in Izzy? Do you draw on your own experiences growing up?
Izzy is not me. None of my characters are me, although they, of course, reflect who I am. I had an incredibly happy childhood. But I observe and I write what I see and hear and learn. I recently asked a room full of teachers and parents to raise their hands if the areas of divorce or marital discord had NOT affected their lives in some way. Not one person raised a hand. Not one. Then I asked them to think about the children in their lives and how much more they would be touched by decisions that were completely out of their control. We ask children to adjust to issues that even adults often don’t handle very well, and in addition, we expect them to behave in school and get good grades and deal with the situation without question. It’s hard. But amazingly, most of them manage. In Blended, Isabella gives voice to those children, showing how hard it is to balance the whims of adults with her own needs. She just wants to be loved and to know that her parents still love her, even though they no longer love each other. So Izzy gives a powerful adolescent voice to those kids and says out loud what many of them are unable to say.
If you could tell your younger writing self something, what would it be?
I wish I‘d started writing earlier—years earlier. But maybe I needed to live life long enough to have something to say. I’m proud of the confident, but terrified young writer who believed in herself and in her ability to write a story, the young woman who sent her manuscript to twenty-five publishing companies. After twenty-four rejections, she was feeling rather discouraged. But that one yes from Simon and Schuster made all the difference, and for that I am very thankful. So I suppose I’d tell my younger self to never give up, to believe in yourself, and to aim for excellence.
Join us for summer camp!
Each of our Young Author’s Studio camps runs Monday-Thursday for 2 hours per session. We’re inviting passionate young writers to join us on Zoom for writerly learning experiences. Each camp will include lively skill-building activities, time for drafting, and collaboration with peers.
A special thanks to Sharon Draper for sharing with us! You can learn more about her at her website.
Sharon M. Draper is a professional educator as well as an accomplished writer. She has been honored as the National Teacher of the Year, is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Literary Awards, and is a New York Times bestselling author, with Out of my Mind staying on the list for almost two years. She was selected as Ohio’s Outstanding High School Language Arts Educator, Ohio Teacher of the Year, and was chosen as a NCNW Excellence in Teaching Award winner.