Interview with Sharon M. Draper

Sharon M. DraperSharon 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 Award, and is a New York Times bestselling author. 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. She is a Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award winner, and was the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence for the Taft Museum. She is a YWCA Career Woman of Achievement, and is the recipient of the Dean’s Award from Howard University School of Education, the Pepperdine University Distinguished Alumnus Award, the Marva Collins Education Excellence Award, and the Governor’s Educational Leadership Award.

Actively involved in encouraging and motivating all teachers and their students as well, she has worked all over the United States, as well as in Russia, Ghana, Togo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Bermuda, and Guam, spreading the word about the power of accomplished teaching and excellence in education.

Her literary recognition began when, as a challenge from one of her students, she entered and won first prize in a literary contest, for which she was awarded $5000 and the publication of her short story, “One Small Torch.” She has published numerous poems, articles, and short stories in a variety of literary journals. She is the published author of numerous articles, stories, and poems.

Tears of a Tiger has received numerous awards, including the American Library Association/Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award for an outstanding new book, and was also honored as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. It was also named as Best of the Best by VOYA and the American Library Association as one of the top 100 books for young adults. Forged by Fire, the sequel to Tears of a Tiger, is the 1997 Coretta Scott King Award winner, as well as the winner of the ALA BEST Book Award and the Parent’s Choice Award and the Indiana Young Hoosier Award.

Darkness Before Dawn, the third book in the trilogy, is an ALA Top Ten Quick Pick, and has received the Children’s Choice Award from the International Reading Association and received the Buckeye Book Award for 2005, and was named an IRA Young Adult Choice for 2003.

Romiette and Julio is also listed as an ALA Best Book and has been selected by the International Reading Association as a 2000 Notable Book for a Global Society, and by the New York Public Library in their Books for the Teen Age.

The Battle of Jericho is the 2004 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, one of the New York Public Library’s Book for the Teen Age, and is one of the 2005 Young Adult Choice Books named by the International Reading Association.

Copper Sun received the 2007 Coretta Scott King Literature award, was named as one of the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books for Youth by Booklist was nominated for the 2007 NAACP Image Award for Literature, and received the Ohioana Award for Young Adult Literature.

November Blues received the 2008 Coretta Scott King Honor Book Literary Award and is honored on the 2008 New York Public Library Best Books for the Teen Age.

Ms. Draper travels extensively and has been a guest on television and radio programs throughout the country, discussing issues of literature, reading, and education. She is an accomplished public speaker who addresses educational and literary groups of all ages, both nationally and internationally, with entertaining readings of her poetry and novels, as well as enlightening instructional presentations. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and a golden retriever named Honey.

Web site: www.sharondraper.com


  1. You have been recognized a number of times for your achievements as an educator.  Has teaching or your school experience influenced your writing?

    I think that being a teacher made me a better writer. But the two are inseparable. I’ve retired, but I’m in schools quite often, so I may as well be teaching. I think I understand kids’ mindset. Kids change, and slang changes, and the way young people look at the world changes a little bit, but basically, if you’re fifteen, you’re too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny, your hair’s too curly or too straight — you’re never quite right. If you understand that all fifteen-year-old girls feel like that whether they let you know it or not, then you can start to build a character. The girls will say to me, “That’s just the way I feel!” You know fifteen-year-old boys are worried about whether fifteen-year-old girls will like them. They might know a lot more than we knew at their age, but there’s still that innocence of a child. I think because I was a teacher I can capture that, and kids trust me. They write me letters like, “Dear Sharon, Girl, you is the bomb!” They write to me like they know me because I write like I know them, and they seem to feel it. They ask me questions; they ask me for advice. It’s amazing the things that they write to me. I really appreciate their trust.

  2. It must be a wonderful feeling to go into a classroom now as an author and to see your books in school libraries.  What is the reaction of your educational colleagues?

    I’m still blown away when I visit a school library and I see rows and rows of my books. Well-worn, well-used, taped together. I was an avid reader as a kid, and to be that author that kids clamor for now is truly humbling. My colleagues who are teachers and librarians are so very supportive. They make great use of the study materials I provide on my website (sharondraper.com), and they await new titles so they can share them with their students. I can’t ask for anything more. Their support and their sharing of the books with their students means everything to me.

  3. How do your readers react?  Any favorite stories?

    I get hundreds of emails and letters from students during the year. They are frank, sometimes funny, and always honest. “I have to do a report on you. Tell me everything you know about yourself. My report is due tomorrow, so please reply quickly.”

    Lots of them get very involved in the lives of the characters in the books–they want to know more about them–almost like they are friends by the time they finish them. That’s one reason why I write trilogies. What was just one book, becomes two, and then becomes three–mostly because of letters and inquiries from student readers. One girl asked me for the home phone number of one of the characters in Tears of a Tiger. She wrote me, “That girl has some serious issues, but I think I can help her!”

    Many students tell me, “I never liked to read” or “I’ve never read a whole book before” but “I read your book in one night and I couldn’t wait to read the others.” They like the reality and the honesty of the stories and locations and characters. Some of the letters are very touching. Sometimes they tell me that reading one of the books changed their lives. I had a student tell me she called the child abuse hotline in the back of Forged by Fire. She wrote me to thank me for saving her life. Another student wrote that he was depressed and was thinking of taking his life, but after reading Tears of a Tiger, he decided to live. I counseled him to talk to someone he trusted, and he wrote me back that he had. Anther student said she was reading Tears of a Tiger in class and that weekend some of her friends were drinking at a party. She thought about BJ in the book (who doesn’t drink), so she called her mother to come and pick her up. Her friends were killed that night in an automobile accident. It’s an awesome responsibility to have so much response to what I’ve written. That’s why I try so hard to make every single book ring true and honest and why I try to be available to them. I try to answer every single email and every single letter that I receive.

    One ninth-grade student who was interviewing for the school paper asked me what I thought about the powerful effect my books have on kids all over the country. I told her, “The proper answer is ‘It’s very gratifying,’ but the real answer is ‘way cool!”

  4. Are most of your readers girls?

    No, from the emails I receive, I’d say the audience is divided pretty equally between boys and girls, and represent all races.

  5. Any thoughts on what your readers are reading? Any impressions on what African American boys and girls are reading and the choices that they have for entertainment?

    I have found that young African Americans are reading lots more than the news media and the general public gives them credit for. We just need to provide them with quality books that speak to them. I would hope that young Black readers would demand such quality. We so often stoop to the lowest common denominator, like purchasing music which denigrates our women in the name of culture. So I’d hope that these young readers would demand books that reflect who they really are. 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, not denigrate them into caricatures of reality. We’ve come too far to settle for less than the best.

    I tell them to read all the time. Read for pleasure and read for knowledge. Read to escape from problems and read to learn how to solve them. Read because you can. Our ancestors were beaten and even killed for daring to learn to read. Don’t let their sacrifice be for nothing. Honor them by reading all the time.

  6. Considering your success as an writer, it seems amazing that you started writing almost on a dare.  And that your first story was turned down by 24 publishers. Did you take this “writing thing” as a challenge?

    The first short story was written as a challenge, but everything else came from some place deep within me. Writing for me is a very fluid process–I sit down a wait for the words to come. They usually do—in buckets and waves. It’s amazing. I look upon it as a blessing because the words come so easily. Sometimes I can’t even type fast enough to get the words out. When I write, I try to make strong characters that change and develop and learn from their mistakes. I think the layering comes in the story development. The plot is born from the idea, then is crafted by the characters and how they respond to what happens to them. I get up early in the morning and write all day—maybe ten or twelve hours a day. It is truly an act of immersion. It’s a thrilling, exciting process. I think I’ve just finished my twenty-ninth book!

  7. You also have a couple of “Sassy” books ready to hit the shelves. Sassy represents a change of pace for you: your first series geared toward middle-grade girls. What can you tell us about “Sassy”?

    My daughter owns a dance studio, and I’m often there talking to the middle-grade girls who take dance classes. They are avid readers, enthusiastic conversationalists, and lively participants in their world. They have strong opinions about fashions and fads, about family and friends. I wanted to capture their joy of life, so I decided to create a character and write a book that they could embrace with passion. I think readers will love Sassy’s “spark and sparkle.” She’s delightful, yet realistic, with a strong sense of self and a yearning to find her place in the world. She could be anyone’s “little sister.”

    I hope that girls as well as boys enjoy reading about Sassy and her adventures. I wanted to show a strong family setting, with busy parents who care for their children, and an extended family of grandparents who complete the circle. The stories are easy enough to be read by children in second or third grade, but have ideas advanced enough for discussion for children in upper elementary grades as well.

    But the Sassy books are not my first books for this age group. I have written six books called The Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs series. These books, in which the main characters are African American boys, are geared to grades 3, 4, and 5 as well. I do lots of presentations at elementary schools and I love talking to, and listening to the children. They ask wonderful questions and are deeply excited about books and reading. When I write, I try to capture their voices and their honesty. Their age doesn’t matter.

  8. What can you tell us about Just Another Hero, and the preceding novels, The Battle for Jericho and November Blues?

    Just Another Hero is Book 3 in the Jericho Trilogy. In Book One, The Battle of Jericho, we meet the characters and discover that making the right decisions is one of the hardest choices faces teens today. They feel so pressured to fit in that they are often willing to even risk their own lives to feel part of the accepted crowd. So Jericho and his friends make terrible decisions, and young readers can talk about those choices.

    Book Two, November Blues, continues the story by focusing on the girlfriend of one of the young men in the first book. She is left to face her own choices alone, and she struggles through much of the book as a consequence.

    When I started Book Three, Just Another Hero, I wanted to tackle the issue of school violence, but I couldn’t write about killing children. I wanted to bring up the issue so young adults can talk about it, without gratuitous bloodshed. I also wanted to discuss the idea of heroism. What is a hero? What makes a hero? We have a tendency to think of heroes as movie stars; I wanted young people to talk about the real heroes in their lives.

  9. Any plans to do a “grown-up” novel?

    I have no plans to write an adult novel. I love writing for teen readers.

  10. Any favorite books or authors? What’s on your nightstand?

    Currently, I still am a reader. That stack of books by everyone’s bed — I have that same stack: books I’ve read, books I’m going to read, books I need to read, books that people have told me are good books to read. My favorite author right now is Diane McKinney-Whetstone. She’s an African-American author, and if I could write grown-up books, I’d write like her. She just writes beautifully, with quality and with depth. I sent her an e-mail recently and said, “I don’t want to sound like one of the fifteen-year-olds who write to me, but gee, I like your writing!” I really did sound like a kid when I wrote it. I also admire Olympia Vernon, who is a powerful, powerful African-American voice.

  11. If you were asked to coalesce your work into one sentence, what might that be?
    I try to write powerful, meaningful stories for young people and show them I understand the difficulties of growing up, and to let them know I care.

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