The Digital Squeeze

The Digital Squeeze Episode 3: Sharon Draper

Oct 28, 2019

Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Sharon Draper talks about her recent achievements including the 2018 bestseller Blended, and provides her insights as an educator and library supporter.

Julie Twomey: Hello and thank you for checking out the Digital Squeeze podcast. This is Julie Toomey.

Recently my team and I attended the American Library Association Annual Conference and we got a chance to sit down with award winning and New York Times bestselling author Sharon Draper, who released Blended in October of 2018 to rave reviews. Hear what Sharon has to say about this important publication as well as her insights as an educator and library supporter. Stay tuned after the program to hear a clip of Blended by Sharon Draper.

And I'm here with Sharon Draper, multi award winner educator and author. Thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.

Sharon Draper: Well I'm delighted.

Julie Twomey: I want to ask you a little bit about Blended, if that's okay. What inspired you to write about a young girl going through a challenging adolescence, balancing the stress of her parents' divorce and the demands of being an accomplished pianist?

Sharon Draper: Well, that's a long question and it came in pieces. Okay. Most of my characters lately have been preteen girls with various issues. And so you choose the character and then you choose the issues. And every child can't have the same issue.

Julie Twomey: Right.

Sharon Draper: So Isabella, I wanted to deal with the subject of divorce because I meet so many kids, I have children in my family who are children of divorce, who are divided with mom part of the time and dad part of the time. And it's awkward and it's ugly and it's uncomfortable. And the adults look at it, well this is what the judge says, so we're going to do it. But for a child, this is like I have to decide allegiance between mom's house and dad's house. And one thing that Isabella says in the book, she said, I go to dad's house, I go to mom's house. I never go home.

Julie Twomey: Wow. That has impact. I'm a child of divorce as well. And I, like you said, so many people are. And that really resonates with me and I'm sure it will with a lot of your readers. That's great.

Sharon Draper: And even children who are not children are divorce, have friends and cousins and relatives and they can understand her confusion because her confusion is just another part of normal teenage development. Confusion about who am I and where do I belong?

Julie Twomey: So the main character is a pianists. Do you have a musical background?

Sharon Draper: Yes I do play the piano. And I'm glad you don't have a piano so I don't have to prove.

Julie Twomey: I love it.

Sharon Draper: Yes.

Julie Twomey: No, it's a wonderful story. I also see that you narrated it for the audio book.

Sharon Draper: Yes.

Julie Twomey: I think that's fabulous. I know you also narrated Out Of My Mind and Tears Of A Tiger. Did that come natural to you or?

Sharon Draper: I don't think I got to do the narration for Out Of My Mind.

Julie Twomey: Oh you didn't?

Sharon Draper: No.

Julie Twomey: I thought I saw you on that. I'm sorry.

Sharon Draper: No I don't think I did. Blended was the first one I read the entire story.

Julie Twomey: So how did you prepare for that?

Sharon Draper: I drank lots of water. It was different reading the story out loud. You know when I go to a school, I will read excerpts.

Julie Twomey: Right.

Sharon Draper: But reading the entire thing is quite an endeavor. It took three days.

Julie Twomey: Three days.

Sharon Draper: In a studio.

Julie Twomey: How many hours a day were you there?

Sharon Draper: Probably seven.

Julie Twomey: Wow. That's a full day.

Sharon Draper: It's a full day. We broke for lunch and kept on reading.

Julie Twomey: Did you enjoy it?

Sharon Draper: Absolutely.

Julie Twomey: Oh love it. Love it.

Sharon Draper: It was so much fun.

Julie Twomey: Are you going to do more?

Sharon Draper: I hope so.

Julie Twomey: I think that's great. I think for me, I know I'm a huge audio book lover and I love it when the author narrates it. It just brings something to it, so I think that's great.

Sharon Draper: Blended was the first book that I did the audio for myself.

Julie Twomey: Okay.

Sharon Draper: So I'm going to make sure that any book that comes up next, I also do the audio for.

Julie Twomey: I think that's good. I think it really brings value.

Sharon Draper: Yes.

Julie Twomey: Yeah that's excellent. As a professional educator, what are your feelings about audio books in curriculums?

Sharon Draper: As an educator, I feel that audio books are necessary for students who have difficulty with reading, who have visual difficulties. For students who need more focus, a lot of times an audio ... I would give a student the headphones and let them listen while reading. Just listen to the words and follow the words on the page. So the student is not forced to do all the reading, but is reading along with the reader.

Julie Twomey: Right.

Sharon Draper: So it's a means for enhanced learning.

Julie Twomey: I love the story of how you got started as an author. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Sharon Draper: I was a teacher and I had taught for 99 years. And I always had my students read and write. That was, my whole focus was reading and writing. And I had a student one day who said you're always making us write stuff. Why don't you write something? And he gave me an application for a writing contest. And I said, yeah right. Okay. But I ended up writing a story. It was three pages long. And I sent it into a contest and I won first prize.

Julie Twomey: I think that's fabulous. I just think, I love how it proves you can always try something new, do something different, you know, that you might not have done before. I love it.

Sharon Draper: And I never would have done it if it hadn't been for that student.

Julie Twomey: And look where you are now, right. I love it. That's great. You've also traveled the world spreading the word about making a positive impact. Can you talk about Copper Sun a little bit?

Sharon Draper: Copper Sun. I've been to Africa several times, probably five or six times. And of all the countries that I've been to, Africa resounds with me. And on one of my early trips to Africa, they take you on the various tours and you know you get to see the things that tourists see. And one of the tours was to Cape Coast Castle. And Cape Coast Castle is not a castle, it's a prison. They call it castle to make it, I don't know, semantics I guess. But it was the place where the people were held before they were shipped out to put on the ships and be taken to the new world.

And the tour takes you through the tunnels and the path that they had to take and the holes that they kept them in and it's really, really graphic and intense. And so after that experience, I said I have to write a story about one girl who came through these tunnels, who came through this passageway, who was pushed through that narrow, narrow path out onto the beach to see this ship. And she'd never seen a ship, so she didn't even know what that thing was floating on the water. And how her life was completely changed. She never got to go back home. She never got to see her family. She never, her life was changed forever when they took her on that ship and they made her into a slave.

One thing I tell students all the time, because it's easy to, and teachers too, it's easy to run by the phrase and say it thoughtlessly. And I've heard teachers say that there were millions of slaves taken out of Africa and that's not true. Millions of people were taken out of Africa and they were made into slaves. They were not slaves when they were taken.

Julie Twomey: That's right.

Sharon Draper: And that's a real important distinction. So I wrote Copper Sun for all of those reasons. I wanted to know what it was like for one girl who was 15 and what it would be like to have to go through that horrible experience and how do you survive.

Julie Twomey: Right.

Sharon Draper: Because it's not like she can get back.

Julie Twomey: Right. Right. No I think it's a wonderful story and thank you for sharing it. As a New York Times best selling author, National Teacher of the Year honoree and five time winner of the Coretta Scott King literary awards, you've accomplished so much. What are your goals for the future?

Sharon Draper: I am working on one, two, three books.

Julie Twomey: Wow. Ambitious.

Sharon Draper: And my goals are to get them finished, get them out and change lives by their content. And no I'm not going to tell you what they're about.

Julie Twomey: That's okay. That's all right. Thank you.

Sharon Draper: But they're good.

Julie Twomey: No we will definitely be looking for them. Thank you. I also noticed on your website, you know as an educator you have a ton of tools and resources for educators, which I think is fabulous. Can you describe some of these tools and why you created them?

Sharon Draper: That's the teacher in me. I wanted to put things on my website, partly for teachers and partly for students. Because kids will write to me and say I have to do a report on you, tell me everything you know about yourself. I need it by tonight. You know, seriously, this is not made up.

Julie Twomey: Oh jeez.

Sharon Draper: This happens a lot. So I very gently say, go back to my website, click on biography and I put everything there.

Julie Twomey: Yep.

Sharon Draper: And the same thing for teachers. Because I'm a teacher, I know that teachers don't have time to make up study questions. They don't have time to, you know, to figure out, make up a test for a, or essay papers, essay topics for one of the books, so I did it for them.

Julie Twomey: I think it's great.

Sharon Draper: Because I'm a teacher and I know how to do it and I'm satisfied that the quality of question and activity that I provided is the very best. So you can buy that stuff, you know from various companies. But I put it on there and they know that it was done by a qualified teachers and that I approve of the topic.

Julie Twomey: That's great. And you do those for all of your books. I think that's a great resource and I hope our librarians and our educators listening will definitely go to your site and-

Sharon Draper: To Sharondraper.com.

Julie Twomey: Yeah.

Sharon Draper: And click on books or click on it, click on study guides.

Julie Twomey: Study guides.

Sharon Draper: It's all kind of interactive.

Julie Twomey: Yeah, it's very easy to find. I found it very easily.

Sharon Draper: Yeah.

Julie Twomey: And I think that's a wonderful resource. I also noticed that your book Panic is listed on quick picks for reluctant young readers. I thought that was very interesting. Why do you think that title resonated with young readers?

Sharon Draper: Well when you're 15 your life is in a panic most of the time.

Julie Twomey: It's so true. It's so true.

Sharon Draper: And this one is for a little bit older reader than I usually write for because I usually focus on the middle grades, but panic is more for high school. And it's about a girl who doesn't listen to the wise advice from her mother, like most 15 year olds. And gets herself caught up in a situation that is way over her head. And she doesn't know how to escape and how to get out of it. And it's kind of a a warning tale for 15 and 16 year olds who see and can be tempted by money and dreams of being famous. And they end up being hurt and used.

Julie Twomey: Yeah. I love these resources and I wish I would have had them growing up myself. Something to relate to. I think it's great. How important was the library to your success throughout the years?

Sharon Draper: Oh I cannot even say. From the time I was three years old, maybe two, my mother walked me to the library. The library was walking distance from my house.

Julie Twomey: Oh so lucky.

Sharon Draper: So we went every single Saturday. And when I got old enough I went by myself. And at the time you can take out 10 books. That was the max and I would check out 10 books and I would read them and that would bring them back and I would check out 10 more. So by the time I had gotten to fourth or fifth grade, I had read all of the books on the elementary side of the library. And the librarians who knew me and knew my family and the dog and knew everybody, eventually gave me a special card so that I could get books from the adult side.

Julie Twomey: Oh, that's great.

Sharon Draper: And they would check them and make sure I didn't get anything to ... But they realize that I was an advanced reader.

Julie Twomey: Right.

Sharon Draper: So I pretty much read every book in that library by the time I got to high school.

Julie Twomey: And did they really work with you and give you recommendations?

Sharon Draper: Oh yeah.

Julie Twomey: And I think that's great. They were like, part of your-

Sharon Draper: They were part of my family.

Julie Twomey: I think that's fabulous. And you were so lucky to live so close.

Sharon Draper: Yeah.

Julie Twomey: Yeah. That's great.

Sharon Draper: Right down the street. As a matter of fact, that library is going to be a character in one of my upcoming book.

Julie Twomey: And where are you? Where are you from?

Sharon Draper: I live in Cleveland, Ohio.

Julie Twomey: Okay.

Sharon Draper: Well, I did, that's where I grew up. I live in Cincinnati now.

Julie Twomey: Okay.

Sharon Draper: But the book is going to take place in Cleveland. And this librarian is going to be a character. You know the adult, you know you have to have the sensible adult for the children in trouble to run to. And that library is going to be a safe haven in this book. And it is a direct response to the library, how it was a safe haven for me.

Julie Twomey: Oh I think that's great. Are you going to let them know that they were your inspiration?

Sharon Draper: Oh absolutely.

Julie Twomey: Yeah. Because that'll be a way that they can promote it and drive.

Sharon Draper: Oh absolutely.

Julie Twomey: So many of your book titles have received awards from ALA. how important is that to you to be recognized by ALA?

Sharon Draper: Awards are awesome. Awards, awards make, how can I explain this? Awards validate you. But there are lots of books with awards that kids don't read. And so my first set of validation is letters from kids. Man that book was so good.

Julie Twomey: I love that.

Sharon Draper: I stayed up all night reading that book. You know, my mother yelled at me because I wouldn't stop reading. That is the ultimate validation. The awards and the stickers, don't get me wrong, I love them.

Julie Twomey: Right.

Sharon Draper: And if I don't get an award or a sticker, I'm upset. But that's not why we write.

Julie Twomey: Right.

Sharon Draper: We don't write for the stickers. You write for those kids who send you emails in the middle of the night and say that book changed my life.

Julie Twomey: I think that's wonderful.

Sharon Draper: That's your ultimate sticker.

Julie Twomey: And is there anything else that you wanted to let us know about?

Sharon Draper: I am working on my very first children's book, a picture book for little ones. And a ballet book, sort of a dance book, and a juicy teenage novel. No dates, but that's what's in the hopper.

Julie Twomey: And that's all I have. Thank you so much.

Sharon Draper: This was one of the best interviews I've ever had. I'm not kidding.

Julie Twomey: Get out. Oh my God, really? Thank you. This was wonderful.

Sharon Draper: Yeah good questions.

Julie Twomey: Thank you. I so appreciate your time. I think you're wonderful. And we'll be looking for all of your new books.

Julie Twomey: Check out this clip of blended by Sharon Draper.

Sharon Draper: Plunk, plink, ripple, rumble, tinkle, twinkle, boom bull. I know that's not an actual word, but it's a real sound. I can create any musical combination of sounds on my piano. That's my superpower.

I sit hands perched with thirsty fingers as I get ready to play. I work hard at it. Always trying to find the right melodies and harmonies. The upstairs downstairs scales that rise and fall. The three and four finger chords that stomp. The fingernail delicate tiptoeing up and down the keyboard, each touch a new sound. White keys, black keys, one at a time. Chords all together. Two keys make a different sound than three played together. Four or five mashed at the same time is even better. I can do nine keys, even 10 to make a chord, but to be honest, that sounds weird.

Each combination at the piano is different. Bass, treble, major tones, minor whales, bass like a celebration, treble like tears. Five, four, three, two, one. One, two, three, four, five. Up, up, up. Down, down, down. Harmony, melody, chords, scales. The black keys play sad sounds like somebody crying. The white keys sometimes laugh. Using only my fingers I can make the black and white keys dance together and do whatever I want. When I play the piano, I rock. It would be nice if the rest of my life came together like some kind of magical musical symphony. But nah, not usually.

Julie Twomey: If you're interested in learning more about Sharon Draper, you can go to her website at sharondraper.com if your library is interested in offering audio books by Sharon Draper, you can contact an EBSCO representative at ebsco.com. Keep an ear out for our next episode with Jennifer Rubins the Marketing Director for Books on Tape. Thank you for listening to the Digital Squeeze.

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors.