Sunday, August 5, 2018

Stella by Starlight (Sharon M. Draper)

Target Ages:  8-12

Genre:  Middle Grade Historical Fiction

Publisher Summary:
Stella lives in the segregated south—in Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact about it.  Some stores she can go into.  Some stores she can’t.  Some folks are right pleasant.  Others are a lot less.  To Stella, it sort of evens out, and heck, the Klan hasn’t bothered them for years.  But one late night, later than she should ever be up, much less wandering around outside, Stella and her little brother see something that they’re never supposed to see, something that is the first flicker of change to come, change not welcome by any stretch of the imagination.  As Stella’s community—her world—is upended, she decides to fight fire with fire, and learns that ashes don’t necessarily signify the end…

First Lines:
Nine robed figures dressed all in white.  Heads covered with softly pointed hoods.  Against the black of night, a single wooden cross blazed.  Reflections of peppery-red flames shimmered across the otherwise dark surface of Kilkenny Pond.

Two children, crouched behind the low-handing branches of a hulking oak tree on the other side of the pond, watched the flickers of scarlet in the distance in fearful silence.  Dressed only in nightshirts, Stella Mills and her broker Jojo shivered in the midnight October chill.

I am writing this review months after I finished the novel, so it is not fresh in my mind.  However, I want to share some of my thoughts and impressions of the book.  

Coming from my perspective as an English teacher, I especially enjoyed the protagonist's struggle with writing. It borders on cliché that so many protagonists are inspired or gifted writers.  Unfortunately, it gives young and old the impression that writing is a inborn gift—some have it, and some don’t.  Stella has good ideas.  Like most people, though, she has difficulty expressing them.  Nevertheless, she finds a quiet place to practice her writing.  Stella does not just wait for a school assignment.  Instead, she writes about what is going on in her life and town to help her improve her school writing.

Readers get a glimpse as she writes, struggles, and revises.  For instance, early in the narrative, she tries to write for a school assignment.  Nothing is coming to her.  Stella makes a decision, “If she [is] gonna really write with honesty she ought to start, like Mrs. Grayson said, with herself.”  It takes her five tries, but she finally succeeds.

Stella uses writing as a way to cope with difficulties.  Spoon Man for instance encourages her to “Trust the words.  Maybe that image will fade.”  She takes his advice and writes about that night she saw the KKK bonfire as well as her observations about racism, which is cathartic for her.

The writing struggle is valuable for middle grade readers to see.  They need to realize writing does not come naturally or easily for most people.  However with practice and determination, their skills can improve dramatically.

The novel depicts a strong sense of community and family.  For instance, when the Spoon Man arrives in town, everyone comes together for a potluck.  Later, when a family’s house is on fire, dozens of people rush to help put it out.  More importantly, neighbors give the family a place to stay and help them rebuild. 

There are some deeper, more serious issues as well.  The most prominent is the racism of the historical era.  As previously noted, Stella witnesses a Klan rally.  Later, she travels with her father to register to vote, where they are met with hostile resistance.  Afterwards, the Klan burns down a family’s home.  When her mother is bit by a poisonous snake, the town’s white doctor refuses to help her.  The evil actions that come out of racism are illustrate in a genuine way while being age-appropriate in detail.

Even though racism is an underlying issue from beginning to end, the narrative stays hopeful.  There are kind white people who do work together with the African American community.  Her teacher tells inspiring stories that instill strength and pride—even in racist and difficult times.  Stella (and others) empower themselves through education, self-discipline, and good character—which are the pillars of making personal and social change. 

The only aspect of the novel that I felt did not ring 100% authentic is the ending.  Stella ends up saving the daughter of the racist and cruel town doctor.   The positive aspect is the daughter is not racist like her father, which is hinted at in other parts of the novel as well. Nevertheless, it seemed too “neat” to have her drowning with Stella walking by right after Stella's mother is refused medical care by the girl's father.

Overall, I found the characterization and the storytelling engaging. I highly recommend Stella by Starlight for middle grade readers.

Ideas for Extension Activities at Home or Lesson Plans for Teachers:
  • Writing:  Model for students or children the writing process.  Let them see you free writing and then going back to revise.  Then, encourage them to do the same.  Praise them for the improvements and effort more than the initial draft.
  • History:  Include this novel in a study of 1930’s, segregation, and/or Jim Crow laws.
  • Research and Analysis:  Pull in one or more non-fiction texts that describe one of the historical aspects depicted in the novel.  (Older students can do their own research.)  Compare and contrast the non-fiction with the fiction for authenticity. 
  • Figurative Language:  Hyperbole and tall tales are used.  Discuss each one and their overall significance in the storytelling/culture.

Historical Connections:
Civil Rights
African American Voter Registration
Klu Klux Klan
Presidential Election 1932


  1. The cover and your review sold me on this one. I am also willing to read anything historical. I have to agree sometimes MG endings are a bit too tidy, but it is exactly what publishers want for this age level.

    1. I agree with you, Greg. In part, I see the point. However, the literature teacher in me screams, "No, it undermines the literary value!" :)

  2. I actually have a copy of this book, but I haven't read it yet. Your review makes me want to try it, though! Thanks so much for the review!

    1. My pleasure. I hope you find the time to read it soon.

  3. After reading your very compelling review, I just put this on the top of my TBR. Thanks for a great post.

  4. I am thrilled you are giving this book some more book love. It is excellent and a favorite. I enjoyed your review. I went to Draper's launch in Cincinnati when it was released. She is fun to be around.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience with the book. It is always nice to hear when authors are fun and engaging. :)

  5. I truly admire you for sharing such informative and beneficial piece of guidance available to us. The way you convert your insights into this pleasing article is noteworthy. Keep blogging.
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