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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Stella by Starlight, written by Sharon M. Draper. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster. 2015. $19.99 ages 9 and up

"Every Negro family in Bumblebee knew the unwritten rules - they had to take care of their own problems and take care of one another. Help from the white community was neither expected nor considered. It was as it always had been.
"Are you sure they didn't see you?" Papa asked again brusquely, rubbing a hand over his unshaven chin. "No, they didn't, Papa," ...

I finished this fine middle grade novel in the middle of the night; it is that good! Sharon M. Draper was inspired to write it when she read her grandmother's journal, and learned that school had ended in fifth grade for her when help was needed on the family farm. It is also a tribute to her father who found love and learning in family, and who lived a wise and dignified life, despite its obstacles.

"It was 1932, in the little town of Bumblebee, North Carolina, tucked in the rocky bottom of the Blue Ridge Mountains, miles of stone-clogged farmland and forest all around. Folks on Stella's side of town worked as maids and cooks, janitors and sharecropping farmers. A few lucky men got jobs in the lumber mill., the only real industry in town. But they weren't allowed to handle the saws - only the boards and the sawdust."
Stella has a powerful voice and a wonderful storyteller. The third person voice is dominated by Stella and her spirit. She loves to be outside in the dark, where she can write in her own secret journal and avoid the stares that her difficulties with the written word evoke. She and her brother are surprised and frightened one dark night when they see members of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross on the other side of the pond. They rush home to tell their parents. This event precipitates the pastor, her father and another church member of the black community to make the decision to register to vote in the upcoming national election. Stella goes along; she is once more a witness, this time to the poor and unjust treatment the men must endure for securing their right to vote.

Stella is also an aspiring writer. Each pertinent action throughout the novel is chronicled in short entries, typewritten and consistently showing improvement - a subtle reminder that practice makes perfect. She is an astute observer and a thoughtful young woman. Her stories include her mother's encounter with a poisonous snake and the ensuing drama of recovery, her friend's experience with prejudice and assault, her own meeting with members of the KKK, the burning of a house, segregation, illness and heroism. All of those things pale in comparison to the way the community comes together to support each of its families through good times, and bad.

It is a hard look at the ugly face of racism. It is also a testament to the resilience of those who paved the way to today. It is harrowing and hopeful, allowing readers a look at the past. It shows us that in gentle acts of kindness, love of family and friends, and community strength, good things happen. Stella confidently opens our eyes to life as she lives it. Ugly at times, also exceedingly beautiful, it is a story that should be shared in intermediate and middle years classrooms. 

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