Friday, May 1, 2009

"The Apostle of Planet Tween" -- Article in May Ed. of Cincinnati Magazine.

When young adult and children’s author Sharon M. Draper visits schools nationwide—sometimes greeted by marching bands, cheerleaders, and deeply grateful parents and teachers—she’s not only there to read her books to the throngs of tween fans that hang on every word. She’s also listening intently.

“When you’re there on a daily basis you know the words [students] use,” says Draper in a quiet third-floor corner of the Main Library downtown. She’s taking a brief pause at the end of a day packed with talking about her path from award-winning teacher to award-winning author, and why it pays to watch young people. “You observe things like [how they] wear one pants leg up and one pants leg down, you know they use different color shoelaces in their shoes and that means something,” she says. “When I go to schools I’m teaching as well as learning. Sometimes I take notes. I keep a little notebook.”

In a mad rush before summer break, Draper is touring schools in Chicago; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; South Carolina; Orlando; Daytona Beach; and Minneapolis to promote her latest young adult novel, Just Another Hero (Simon & Schuster), a story that examines the concept of heroism through a group of friends confronted by school violence. “I wanted to deal with violence without killing anybody,” she says bluntly. “It’s a lot of noise, a lot of screaming, a lot of broken glass. I wanted kids to discuss violence without experiencing it.”

Listening to how her readers talk—and sometimes asking those same students for clarity and validity—is how Draper stays plugged into issues plaguing their young lives. In fact, dealing with the issues that baffle parents has turned Draper into a one-woman CNN. As a veteran teacher who began her career in the Princeton school district in 1970 and retired 30 years later from Walnut Hills High School (where she won a National Teacher of the Year award in 1997), Draper has reported from the frontlines of tween angst throughout 28 books in 15 years, eloquently exposing suicide, date rape, gang violence, sex, drugs, and the slave trade on a level teenagers can handle. Her characters triumph amid a flurry of teachable moments.

It’s been this way since Draper’s 1994 debut—Tears of a Tiger, which chronicles the aftermath of a drunk driving incident—nabbed the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King Genesis Award honoring new work by an African-American author. Her 2006 book Fire From the Rock, which follows a black high school freshman named Sylvia as she’s thrust into the segregated world of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, is the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s current young adult title for its annual On the Same Page community reading project. Call it street cred; her readers do.

She describes her ever-expanding recognition and sales as a “groundswell of appreciation. Students appreciate me. Kids take the time to find and thank me,” she says, leaning in to display e-mails on her iPhone, paging through with her fingertip. “They write in text language. I get them every day. I get teachers, too. ‘I was a young teacher and didn’t know what to do and somebody said try Tears of a Tiger and boom!’” Draper can also attest to the broad racial appeal of her books. Especially her first historical novel, Copper Sun, which traces the life of Amari, a 15-year-old Ghanaian girl stolen from her village and sold into slavery in 1738 North Carolina.

Draper shows me a laudatory e-mail from a teacher who taught Copper Sun, which came out three years ago. “Now this is from Waynesville, Ohio. These are white children. That is rewarding,” she says. The blur of hotels, book signings, and fans wears on Draper, but her seemingly bottomless well of material leaves little choice.

“I sit down and the words come faster than I can type them,” she says. “It’s a gift. It’s like I am the vessel through which this is being poured.” And it appears her readers drink up every word.

Sharon Draper, The Collected Works

Draper on Paper
“I thought my calling was to go to Washington and work with Obama. I just want to sit in his living room and chat about education.” Draper even filled out a 12-page online application for a job with the Department of Education. “I haven’t heard. I may never hear.”

Treading Water
“I can’t swim. I tell kids, ‘If you hear of Sharon Draper going on a cruise, I’ve been abducted. Call 911.’ I don’t do large mounts of water.”

Dreaming of O
“I think every author dreams of being on Oprah. Oprah’s people have people. I don’t have any connections to Oprah. Oprah has to find you.”

King Me
Tears of A Tiger (1994), Forged By Fire (1997), The Battle of Jericho (2003), Copper Sun (2006) and November Blues (2007) all received the Coretta Scott King Award. Presented by the American Library Association, it recognizes excellent African-American authors and illustrators of children’s and young adult books.

Originally published in the May 2009 issue.

1 comment:

  1. Hooray and yes to the "groundswell of appreciation" Sharon! Also loved this quote, "dealing with the issues that baffle parents has turned Draper into a one-woman CNN."

    Terrific article