Funny thing about growing up: As much as it seems to change, the more it stays the same.
Sharon M. Draper knows the terrain of youth. She’s a bestselling, award-winning author — and a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Literary Awards — who has explored such issues as death, peer pressure and disability in her novels. And while her young readers live in a world that their parents probably couldn’t have imagined as kids, Draper is convinced that what kids seek in literature hasn’t changed all that much.
“I try to include in my stories things that are still true to the life of a child,” says Draper, who will be one of the keynote speakers at Saturday’s Las Vegas Book Festival. “It doesn’t matter whether you lived in ancient Egypt … or modern Philadelphia. If you’re 12 years old, you worry about what you look like, you worry about what your future’s going to be. You’re no longer a child, but you’re not an adult, and being 12 never changes. It’s just the world around that 12-year-old that changes.”
Draper finds that, even in an age of digital literature, kids still love books, and even prefer physical books to e-books.
“I don’t have hard data on it, but just from what I’ve observed they kind of like holding a book in their hand when they get it in their minds they’re going to read a book. They read (paperback) books, and I think that’s a very good thing because there’s something about the tactile experience of turning a page and learning about a character through the physical experience of holding this book.”
Kids also seek out stories that reflect their experience, even if that might occasionally clash with what grown-ups prefer they read.
“There are always negative reactions to whatever you write. That’s just part of the game,” Draper says. “I don’t really worry about it. The ones I am concerned about are seventh-graders who take the time to send me email and letters and write to me to say, ‘I read your book. You write exactly like I think. This is my story. This is true for me. You changed my life because you told my story.’”
Draper, speaking not quite three days after the Route 91 Harvest festival massacre in Las Vegas, said addressing real issues in a fictional context can help bring up “things we couldn’t previously say.”
“You always read the stories about the heroes of the tragedy and those kind of people, and someone, back when they were 5 and 6 and 7, taught them about the value of human life and thinking about issues that are larger than yourself. Someone taught those heroes so that, when the day came, they had to act without thinking.
“Nobody said, ‘Gee, my mother told me I should do this.’ They just reacted to it. That lets me know that humanity is OK and that people are OK and that we are going to make it as a nation of human beings, because we still have that connection and that power and we still have parents and children and teachers and a community based on love.”
Contact John Przybys at reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.