‘My name is Estelle Mills, and I am not nobody – Mrs Grayson would say that’s a double negative. Well, I’m here to say I’m not no negative. I am me, and that’s a fact’.
Stella by Starlight is a powerful, moving story set in the segregated South in the 1930s. The author, Sharon M Draper, was inspired to write the book after finding a journal belonging to her grandmother, Estelle. Estelle had been forced to give up school in the 5th grade but continued to write each night, by moonlight. It is a book about many things – change, prejudice, courage, perseverence and community – and to my mind should be on KS2 reading lists of all schools.
‘…sometimes things that look pretty like secret fire in the darkness, are really pretty ugly’
The story opens with Stella and her younger brother witnessing a KKK meeting late one night. Up until that point, Stella has pretty much resigned herself to her community’s segregated life. Some white people are nice to her, a lot are not, and her community’s unwritten rule of keeping its own company seems the only recipe for a stable life. The re-emergence of the KKK, though, changes everything…
‘Every Negro family in Bumblebee knew the unwritten rules – they had to take care of their own problems and take care of one another. Help from the white community was neither expected nor considered. It was as it always had been.’
Stella is the main character in the book – a bright, inquisitive, mature and sensitive child – who struggles at school to put her thoughts down on paper. Unable to see her other strengths, she defines herself by this lack of ability and tries to hide it from her family by creeping out of the house after dark to practise writing under the stars. It is because of this, that she sees the burning cross at the KKK meeting and is able to alert her daddy and the rest of the community. Stella’s writing provides the backdrop to the story. As the book unfolds, and with the support of her family, the wider community and her own actions, she starts to believe in herself and perseveres to improve her written word.
‘You’re my oldest child, you got smarts enough to be somethin’ special… I need you to be my standing stone, to be my strength this day’
This well-crafted, authentic and poignant story takes us on a roller-coaster of emotions. While the book could be forgiven if it was a little on the heavy side, it is absolutely not. Yes, it captures the sheer nastiness of children and young adults tainted by their parents’ prejudice, and yes, there are heart-wrenching tales of racial abuse (appropriately narrated for the age group). However, it is well-balanced with positivity in many ways: tall tales being told at community suppers, the courage displayed around registering to vote (I don’t want to give any spoilers away!), and the way the community pulls together in times of tragedy. There are also glimmers of change and acceptance, with some members of the white community genuinely reaching out in times of need. But it is also realistic, which it absolutely needed to be – there is no big happy ending, more an implied message that true change takes the smallest of steps, over long periods of time.
‘She jerked her head up and nearly did a double take. The person offering her the ladle was white…’
Stella by Starlight is perfect for introducing a younger audience to the issue of segregation and racial prejudice, as well as highlighting the power of community spirit and the importance of moral courage, self-belief and finding your own voice. The story is 320 pages long, broken down into 50 chapters. It is perfect for KS2 (the American publishers target this at 9-13 years, but most UK review sites list it as 8 – 12), and would also be great as a book club choice as it has plenty of content to stimulate discussion; indeed, the author has included a reading group guide at the end of the book with some thought-provoking questions. It’s also worth pointing out that it makes a good read for adults too – I thoroughly enjoyed it and the themes will definitely remain with me for quite some time.
Stella by Starlight
Author: Sharon M Draper
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon & Schuster)