Stella by Starlight

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally finished reading all of the nominees for the 2016-17 South Carolina Book Award, and it seems that I saved one of the most powerful books on the list for last. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given that the book, Stella by Starlight, was written by Sharon Draper.

Stella by Starlight is not a comfortable read, and I think that’s what makes it so important. This book, which takes place in the segregated South during the Great Depression, doesn’t shy away from the racism, hatred, and fear that was so prevalent at the time. (Anyone who is paying attention would agree that these things are still prevalent.) But this book also emphasizes the power of family, community, faith, and courage in the face of adversity.

The book begins with Stella and her brother, JoJo, witnessing something disturbing in the woods next to their home late one night. They see men and horses in white robes. They see a burning cross. This sight can only mean one thing–the Ku Klux Klan. Stella and JoJo race home to tell their parents what they’ve seen, and the people in the community immediately come together to discuss what it might mean.

With the threat of the Klan looming over everything, the people in Stella’s community wonder what they can do to combat such a seemingly powerful force. They’ve always dealt with racism, but this feels much more sinister. When several men, including Stella’s father, decide to stand up for themselves in the voting booth, the threat becomes even greater.

Through all of this turmoil, Stella examines her own feelings through writing. Stella admits she’s not the best writer, but she practices late at night in the hopes of getting better. She has so many thoughts about what’s going on around her, and she wants to get them down on paper. She writes about her family, school, and community. She writes about the prejudice she experiences and sees around her. She writes about the people, both black and white, who come together and take a stand when times are hard. She writes about her hopes for the future.

I don’t know what more I can say about Stella by Starlight. It’s an excellent piece of historical fiction, and I hope that many teachers and students will use it to supplement their understanding of racism, both in the segregated South and in the present day.

I also see this book being used to help students with their writing…or whatever else they may be having trouble with. Stella freely admits that she is not a great writer and needs practice. Students need to see that it’s okay to make mistakes. What’s important is to keep trying and working to get better.

Librarians, teachers, and parents who want to explore themes like bravery, integrity, empathy, tolerance, and respect with their students should definitely take a look at Stella by Starlight. It’s an extremely powerful book that will stay with all readers long after they’ve finished it.

For more information on Stella by Starlight and other books by Sharon Draper, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with Ms. Draper on Facebook and Twitter.

Alligator Bayou

I’ll be honest.  When I first picked up Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli, I was less than enthused about reading it.  The cover was boring.  (Yes, I do judge a book by it’s cover.)  Once I began reading, however, I was drawn into the story.  I didn’t know until reading the afterword that the story was based on actual events.  That shed a whole new light on what I had read.

Calogero and his family are Sicilian immigrants living in Tallulah, Louisiana.  The year is 1899.  The South is trying to rebuild from the Civil War, and Jim Crow laws are in full effect.  In Louisiana, like in many other parts of America, Sicilians are viewed as lower than dirt.  They are seen as criminals and are trusted by few.  Calogero, his cousin, and his uncles are grocers in Tallulah, and they deal with these prejudices day after day.  Calo doesn’t really understand why these prejudices exist.  What makes white people better that black people or Italian people?  Why can some people enter the ice cream parlor while others have to be served at the back door?  It just doesn’t make sense.

Calo does, however, make friends in the midst of this turmoil.  He joins a group of black teens in a midnight gator hunt in the swamps.  Although he is terrified the entire time, the hunt actually serves to cement friendships between Calo, his cousin Cirone, and the black teenagers.  Calo is also deeply in love with Patricia, a black girl he met while working at his uncles’ grocery.

Many white people in Tallulah are noticing that Calo and his family spend a lot of time with the town’s black community, and they don’t like it.  Some of the more powerful men are just looking for a way to wipe Calo and his family out of Tallulah.  Can things ever change?  What will become of Calo and his family?  Read Alligator Bayou to find out.

It is clear when reading this book that author Donna Jo Napoli has done her homework.  She includes a detailed afterword and notes on her research.  These tools may serve as jumping off points to learn about a little known prejudice in Reconstruction America.  Napoli’s research shows that Italian Americans were reviled across the United States, not just the South.  Alligator Bayou is an excellent book to begin discussions on prejudice and how various groups of people have been treated in our nation’s history.

Climbing the Stairs

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman is the story of fifteen-year-old Vidya.  She lives with her father, mother, and brother in Bombay, India.  The year is 1941.  Gandhi is advocating nonviolent protest against British rule in India, and the British are fighting the Axis in World War II.  After Vidya’s father is critically injured during a protest, her family moves to Madras to live with her paternal grandfather and other member’s of her father’s family.  (According to Indian tradition, they are honor-bound to take in Vidya’s family.)

Life for Vidya is much different in Madras than it was in Bombay.  In Bombay, she played sports, had a loving relationship with her family, and enjoyed a great deal of freedom.  In Madras, however, men reside upstairs, while the women and children stay downstairs and attend to all domestic tasks.  Vidya is constantly ridiculed by two of her aunts and her cousin, Matali.  She has very little freedom, and she longs for things to return to the way they once were.

One day, however, Vidya decides to climb the stairs to the men’s floor.  It is there that she locates the library.  She escapes her life through books.  She also meets a family friend, Raman, who becomes more than just a friend to Vidya.

Read Climbing the Stairs for a moving account of a girl who finds meaning in her life through her faith, her family, and her freedom.

I really enjoyed this book (which is a little odd as I don’t tend to favor historical fiction).  The main character is a strong female, even though she does occasionally bow to the dictates of her traditional Indian family.  (I can also relate to this, though in a different way.   It’s definitely hard to break away from your family’s expectations, especially in a good ole Southern Baptist family.   And Mom, I know you’re reading this, so don’t freak out.)  I think Vidya is a good example for teen readers.  She wants to break out of the strictures placed upon her and be her own person but still retain her identity that her family helped her to form.  As a bonus, she loves to read!  Yay!  Read Padma Venkatraman’s Climbing the Stairs for a wonderful story of becoming your own person.