Courage, Community, and Hope: Reading Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper – Review by Tara Warmerdam
Stella is a young girl you will remember long after the final page of this finely tuned and well written novel. She is a writer. Yes, I LOVE that she is a dedicated writer (who sneaks out at night to keep writing!) and we get to read her own words throughout the novel. It is yet another layer to see how her writing develops and changes over the course of the story. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as there are complications in Stella’s life that come with the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan.
Stella and her family live in the small town of Bumblebee, North Carolina, in 1932. Segregation is a way of life for all in this African American community. When the Klan arrives late at night, Stella and her brother JoJo hide behind a tree and witness a cross burning in the night sky. They know that they have to tell their parents. Very quickly, tensions rise and things begin to shift in this small, tightly knit community. The Klan activity worries everyone, including the young children.
Stella is a thoughtful young girl who wants to make sense of the world around her and the worry about the KKK is now part of this world. Fear becomes part of daily life in Bumblebee. But Stella wants to understand people including those who different from her. She tells her father “it’s hard to be a tree” in thinking about the life cycle of trees, understanding different types of trees, different uses, how trees are made into furniture, books and newspapers, and “dust becomes words.” Stella spends time thinking and writing, expressing her feelings through her pen and paper.
Despite the looming presence of the Klan and the threats to the community, Stella’s father and other men head to town in order to register to vote. This moment of courage and bravery is a powerful moment in Stella’s life and resonates within the community. After the men pass their voter registration exam, the Klan strikes in the town of Bumblebee bringing fire and destruction. But the community comes together, taking care of each other, displaying their strength and determination to live without fear. Stella’s family then faces another crisis in which the white town doctor’s racism could have disastrous consequences, but Stella’s bravery and intelligence triumph.
Through Stella’s writings, we see her strong will, optimism and hope for a world in which color doesn’t limit people or segregate them from others, but rather a world in which everyone is equal. She longs for a community in which everyone can live together safely. She looks for the good in all people, in her classmates, her neighbors, and the adults in her life. We also see Stella’s growth, both as a writer and as a young girl determined to grow up and make a positive difference in the world around her.
Christmas arrives with the end of the novel, and Mama’s words “just plain joy” echo throughout the final pages. The last chapter is Stella’s “Star Sentinel Christmas Edition” in which Stella describes Christmas morning and the roosters who don’t think about flying….and Stella tells the reader “but I do.” This final image of flying and freedom leaves the reader with hope and optimism. Readers will find many topics and layers to discuss, from segregation, the KKK, the importance of family, standing by one’s word and living without fear. This is an important book about the power of words, community, and hope for the future. The depth and richness of Stella by Starlight make it a joy to read and discuss.
Tara Warmerdam first became a fan of Sharon Draper when she and her 9th grade students read Tears of a Tiger over fifteen years ago. Tara never misses an opportunity to discuss one of Sharon Draper’s many books with a group of young readers, as the discussion is always amazing. Tara blogs about books at The Reading Corner www.tarawarmerdam.com and you can find her on Twitter @TaraWTeach