This year for Teacher Appreciation, one of the greatest Mother/Daughter duos that I’ve had the privilege to work with gave me the book Stella By Starlight by Sharon Draper. Draper’s name should be familiar to my followers, as she is the author of Out of My Mind, one of my all-time top 3 middle grade books. I’ve shared about it in previous entries, probably more than once.
Stella By Starlight is nothing like Out of My Mind, but it was a very touching story in its own way.
The story is set in 1932 in the town of Bumblebee, North Carolina. Bumblebee is a segregated town. There are two schools, one white-one black, two doctors, one white-one black, and two neighborhoods, one white-one black. There are townspeople who do not follow the segregation laws, but for the most part the town is split in two based on the colors of the citizens’ skin.
Stella is like any average girl, she has to deal with school work – she hates writing, a younger brother who sometimes bugs her, and is sometimes her best friend, family life and friends (maybe even liking boys.)
But Stella has other things that factor into her everyday life. She has to, in a limited way, interact with people who only see her skin color. She knows not to speak out of turn, or look many white people in the eye. The two sides of town have an uneasy peace, but one night Stella and her brother see a burning cross on the other side of the pond. The Ku Klux Klan has reemerged in their tiny town.
The 1930s were not any easy time for most Americans, race issues aside. The Great Depression had left many people out of work and struggling to take care of their families. It was not hard for groups like the KKK to capitalize on people’s fears and insecurities.
In such a time of turmoil, men like Stella’s father chose to stand up for their right to vote, wanting a say in who would hopefully bring the country out of the Depression. Draper wrote a tense scene where three African American men stood up for themselves and registered to vote. Draper is not shy about telling young readers about the inconsistencies in the “rules”. Stella’s father and his friends must take a test proving they can recite the preamble to the Constitution, answer questions on American history and so forth. The white man who conducted the test could barely read, a detail that Stella was quick to see. The men must use peaceful resistance to accomplish their goal but they finally do.
It would be nice to say that the men only had to face the farcical test to register to vote and then after proving themselves to be upstanding citizens, they were seen as equals in Bumblebee. Unfortunately, they brought the wrath of the KKK down on the “colored” side of the community. These white men were cowardly enough to burn down a man’s home while he, his wife and their 13 children were inside. The Klan wasn’t satisfied with endangering innocent lives in the fire though. Stella’s friend is beaten mercilessly in broad daylight when he attempts to stand up for Stella when she is accused of being a thief.
Stella’s eyes are opened up to the craziness of the world around her, and in discovering the realities of life for a African American in segregated America, she discovers an inner strength she never knew she had. That inner strength is fostered by her community of friends and family and she becomes so much more than she thought possible.
This story would be a great read-aloud for middle grade students. It not only teaches readers that separate is never equal, but it shows quite clearly that the prejudices of many were not held by all. Sadly, segregation continued legally into the 1960s in America, and I’m sure in some ways it still exists. The only was to stop such history from being repeated is to teach our children the truth.
We promise to teach you, and to guide you. Each of you is a David, and you will face many Goliaths in life. The job of adults is to prepare you. And we will.