Stella by Starlight
Sharon M. Draper
Atheneum, 2015 320 pgs
Stella is a fifth-grade African-American girl living in the depression-era segregated rural south. She attends school and struggles to learn, despite outdated text books and poor conditions. Every night Stella writes her thoughts and dreams outside under the stars and even though writing is difficult for her, she finds it therapeutic. One night Stella and her younger brother discover a terrible thing: a burning cross courtesy of the Ku Klux Klan. The whole community is shaken and fearful. Stella's father and two other men venture into town and register to vote in the face of the blatant discrimination and threats of violence doing so brings. Sure enough, the Klan retaliates and burns down the house of one of the registering men, leaving his family with thirteen children homeless. Much to the community's surprise, help with the fire and the aftermath comes from unexpected places: friends within the white community with the courage to stand up for what is right. Further tragedy strikes when Stella's mother is bitten by a snake while the black doctor is out of town. The white doctor (and Klan leader) refuses to offer treatment. Stella must do what she can to help her mother all while trying to process the amount of hate and prejudice the white doctors harbors. Through an encounter with the doctor's daughter we learn a little of his motivation and see that he is a bully who is also cruel to his own family. By book's end the community has banned together and has started to heal, refusing to believe that they are second class citizens and choosing to not let the Klan force them into a life of fear and cowardice.
Sharon Draper is an amazing author. Her book Out of My Mind is one of my all-time favorite books of all time and, although Stella is very different in both theme and time period, it is also awesome. Draper acknowledges in a dedication page that this story is based on the experiences of her father and grandmother. Knowing that the story is rooted in truth makes it that much more powerful. Stella is an average girl with less than average opportunities and she rises above her circumstances again and again and makes a difference. She reports about the Klan, marches into the voter registration office with her father to register, saves a lost child, fights a fire, and stands up to the leader of the Klan in order to help her mother; all while having no voice as a African-American female child in the 1930's south. Draper does not shield away from violence, particularly when a friend of Stella's get beaten by a couple of yahoos, but no major characters die and it remains age appropriate. This is a serious book, yet stays true to the child-like narration and offers humorous moments. Today's kids will benefit from exposure to life in the 1930's rural south when a piece of candy was a treat, riding in a car was rare, and children did not wear shoes even to school. Themes of the evils of prejudice and segregation are obvious, but Draper also offers messages about the importance of family and community and the power of writing. Solid historical fiction on an often over-looked, yet very important, topic for young people.