Sharon M. Draper has been busy of late, with her new Sassy series for tween girls from Scholastic, as well as the release of Just Another Hero (Atheneum), the final book in her Jericho trilogy. The former teacher now writes fulltime, and does school visits and appearances. Children’s Bookshelf caught up with the author to talk about her writing life.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of Tears of the Tiger, your first book. How have things changed for you?
So much has changed. I’ve learned a great deal about writing and the publishing business. I’ve been blessed with two really good editors who have taught me so much about the nuances of writing—Marcia Marshall, who has retired, and Caitlyn Dlouhy, my current editor. I believe I’m a better writer now than I was when I started. I’m grateful that I had good guidance because you don’t make it in this business without good editors and a lot of support from your publishers.
Have things changed regarding the types of books that young people want to read?
No. They want it to be good. They are very impatient, so the cover, back copy and flap have to grab them. It has to grab them on page one because they don’t have time to read 10 chapters to get to the good part. If those don’t capture them, then they put it down because the cell phone is ringing, text messages are coming in, and there are other things to do.
Like TheBattle of Jericho and November Blues, the two previous titles in your Jericho trilogy, Just Another Hero tackles serious issues, including prescription drug addiction and school violence. How do you manage to pack so much into your books?
Well, I try not to overload them. But I found that young people are expecting something to happen. Also, there are issues that they need and want to talk about. A lot of times, the adults in their lives won’t.
I’ve been thinking about doing something about school violence since Columbine, but I couldn’t write about killing children. I wanted to bring up the issue so kids 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.
This is your second trilogy. Is there something in particular that you like about them?
With the Hazelwood High trilogy, I wasn’t sure I was writing a trilogy. I would just write one book, then another, and then another, because the young adults who wrote me told me that they wanted to read more. This time, I knew I was writing a trilogy and planned it, so it reads chronologically. There’s so much to cover and you can do it more effectively in a three-part series than in one book.
Are you sad when the final book is released?
I’m waiting for the letters that ask when I’m going to write book four. I got those a lot with the first trilogy.
But I do get a little sad because the characters are like friends to me. I treat them like they’re real people. I live with them and know what their kitchen smells like. If you can get that kind of detail in the minds of readers, they tend to feel the same way.
What about your new Sassy series? Will there be more than three books?
Yes. Three are done and there will be more.
How did that project come about?
I already had the Ziggy series from Simon and Schuster, which is geared more towards middle grade boys. Girls have come to me and said, “These are nice, but what about something for us?” Girls read a boy book, but boys don’t necessarily want to read a girl book. I wanted to do something for these girls. I also have a sassy granddaughter—well, she’s not sassy, she’s fun.
I wondered if you had a specific girl in mind when you developed Sassy Simone Sanford’s character.
I did interview a whole class of fourth-graders. We met after school and had pizza. They showed me what they carried in their purses. We had a fun time. The teacher is a former student of mine, so they thought that was special.
Do you do this type of field research often?
I do research for every single book, regardless. For Double Dutch, I learned to jump, and learned the scoring system. For November Blues, I interviewed pregnant teens. I like to get up close and personal with the kids involved in the situations I write about.
In Sassy: Little Sister Is NOT My Name, the first book, Sassy wants her own identity and to shed the “little sister” nickname. What does she experience in the forthcoming book, The Birthday Storm?
In book two, she and her family visit her grandmother in Florida for a birthday party. The party is cancelled because of a hurricane, so instead of candles and cake, they have bottled water and boarded-up windows. Sassy learns that family is more important than cake and ice cream and she also gets to save a family of sea turtles from the hurricane.
The colorful Sassy sack that she carries with her everywhere always seems to come in handy.
In Sassy’s sack, she has anything that she or someone else might need. If someone needs a rubber band, Band-Aid, gum, Sassy can reach down in her sack and give it to them. It’s the magic of the sack.
I could use a sack.
I have one! I had it specially made. I take it with me to school visits and all the girls want one. I got an email from a parent who said she had looked all over the city looking for something that resembled a Sassy sack.
What’s in yours?
I have pencils which are sparkly. I have pens with feathers, key chains with sparkles, lip gloss, eye shadow that glimmers, sparkle nail polish, all kinds of things. Everything is shiny, of course.
Throughout your teaching career, it was your students who encouraged you to enter a writing contest, which led to writing books. Do you find that young people continue to encourage you?
They encourage me through emails, letters, and personal conversations. They’re so funny sometimes. Some will say, “I have to do a report on you, can you tell me everything about yourself by Thursday?” But others will be more serious. During [Hurricane] Katrina, I got letters that said, “The only thing that kept me going was reading, because that’s all I could do.” Young people lead me into the directions of the kinds of issues that I need to talk about.
Just Another Hero by Sharon M. Draper. Atheneum, $16.99 ISBN 978-1-416-90700-8
Sassy: Little Sister Is NOT My Name by Sharon M. Draper. Scholastic Press, $14.99 ISBN 978-0-545-07151-2
Sassy: The Birthday Storm by Sharon M. Draper. Scholastic Press, $14.99 ISBN 978-0-545-07152-9