Advocating for Change through Artistic Expression

The following guest post is by author Sharon Draper. Draper will be the keynote speaker for the Children’s Book Awards Luncheon and one of our featured speakers on the Authors as Advocates panel at the 2016 NCTE Annual Convention.

SharonDraperThose who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.  I’m paraphrasing here, but the knowledge of the past and the words written to preserve that knowledge are waiting in books. Fiction. Nonfiction. Drama. Poetry. Add to that art and music and color and sound and rhythm and all the manifestations thereof, and we as humans survive and continue.

I remember a powerful short story that we read during a senior literature class I taught. I cannot recall the title, but it was about a music box—the last one in the world. The story took place after the final apocalypse, and basic human survival was a daily life-and-death struggle. And what was the most prized possession of the world in which everything had been destroyed? That music box. It was the only item left on the face of the earth that carried music and art and beauty. Wars were fought—not for food, but for that one piece of beauty. So I asked my students—do we need artistic expression to be fully human? Most of them decided that yes, we do.

What I do through my artistic expression is miniscule, compared to the magnitude of all we need to breathe and think. But I feel uplifted when I see a painting of a sunset that my heart recognizes. I feel satiated when I smell honeysuckle in the summer. I incorporate lots of sensory imagery in my writing—not because a writing professor told me to, but because that is how I inhale the world, how I process all the beauty of life.

Through writing, we have the opportunity to save humanity—one word at a time. I am so grateful to be part of the artistic process, to be one with the drummers and the singers and the photographers who capture a moment.

Reporters sometimes ask me, “Who is your audience?”

I reply, “People who read. People who think they don’t like to read. People who think and connect to others. People who are searching.”

“What do you hope readers take from your books?”

“Memories. Joys. Sorrows. Shared community. Characters. Story. Smiles. Tears. Vision. Hope.”

“So how do your stories promote change?”

“Often they do not. But when they do, this is what happens:

  • Kids read a book all the way through to the end.
  • They tuck [books] in their backpack and dig them out during math class when they are supposed to be doing subtraction.
  • They take [a book] home and share it with their mother.
  • They refuse to return the book, saying they lost it.
  • They identify with the characters in the story, saying that life mirrors their own.
  • They laugh. They cry. They get angry at characters.
  • They read a book many times.
  • They think about their life, their future, their possibilities.
  • They see dances. They hear echoes. They touch a symphony.”

This is a book in the hands of a child.

StellabyStarlightSharon M. Draper is the author of over 30 award-winning books, including Out of my Mind, which remains on the NYT bestseller list. She served as the National Teacher of the Year, has been honored at the White House six times, and was chosen to be a literary ambassador to the children of Africa as well as China.  Her newest novel, Stella by Starlight, won the 2016 NCTE Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children.  

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About Lu Ann McNabb

Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb is the Policy & Alliances Associate for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Lu Ann has long been an advocate for teachers, students and education. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, "Education is the anvil upon which democracy is forged."

One thought on “Advocating for Change through Artistic Expression

  1. I met Sharon a few years ago when she spoke in Oklahoma City. My inner clock was off and I arrived at 7am – an hour before her talk. She was busy setting up, but took the time to introduce herself and talk to me. What a gracious lady and an amazing writer!

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