For thirty years Sharon Draper was an English teacher in the Cincinnati, Ohio, public school system, instilling her love of reading and writing in generations of children, and inspiring them to reach for their greatest dreams. In 1997 she received the highest honor an educator can be given when President Bill Clinton (1946–) named her the U.S. Teacher of the Year. As a result Draper became a spokesperson for the teaching profession, crisscrossing the globe to talk about the importance of excellence in the classroom. In 1994 the dedicated teacher became an author, releasing her first children's book, Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs. Since then she has penned numerous books geared toward children and young adults; Draper is also a poet and nonfiction writer. Her books have won countless prizes, including the Coretta Scott King Award, given annually by the American Library Association to authors and illustrators of African American descent. Draper's most recent young adult novel, The Battle of Jericho (2003), was named the Coretta Scott King Honor Book of 2004.
In interviews Sharon Draper credits her parents for introducing her to the world of books. Draper was born in 1952 in Cleveland, Ohio, the oldest child of Victor Mills, a hotel maitre'd (head-waiter), and Catherine Mills, who worked as a classified advertising manager for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Books filled the Mills's home, and Catherine Mills read to her three children each night starting when they were very young; by the time Draper began school she was already a self-described bookworm. "I inhaled books and knowledge," the author commented on her Web site. Draper explained that for her parents, education was a precious commodity. Victor and Catherine encouraged their children to study and work hard, and as a result they could reach whatever goal they set for themselves: "When I was a little girl, my parents saw me, and my brother and sister, as one of those bright flames of possibility. It never even occurred to me not to do well, not to continue to shine."
Draper did shine brilliantly, becoming a straight-A student and going through almost every single book in her school library. While still in elementary school Draper also realized that one day she wanted to become a teacher. "I was probably born to be a teacher," she revealed on her Web site. "As a child, I taught my dolls, my dogs, and the kids next door." She singles out one woman, in particular, who served as a special role model: her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Kathadaza Mann. According to Draper, Mann taught her students about Black history long before it was an accepted part of the curriculum. She also
" I write because I care about young people. I write because I teach."
introduced them to classic literature, art, and music. "She was one of the first teachers," Draper recalled, "who taught me to read analytically, to think critically, and to speak fearlessly."
Draper breezed through high school, taking advanced and honors courses, and graduated a National Merit Scholar. National Merit Scholarships are awarded each year to a handful of students who achieve excellence on the college placement examination, the SAT. With scholarship in hand, Draper enrolled at Pepperdine University, located in Malibu, California. In 1971, when she was just twenty years old, Draper graduated with a degree in English. Pepperdine offered her a teaching position while she pursued a master's degree, but Draper chose to return to Ohio where she enrolled at Miami University of Ohio. She earned a master's degree in 1974. During this same period, she married her husband, Larry Draper, who is also a teacher. The couple has four children.
As an English teacher in the Cincinnati Public School system, Draper earned a reputation as a no-nonsense educator who challenged her students to the limit. "I demand the best from them," she explained on her Web site, "and they expect the best from me." Draper introduced students to classic and contemporary literature through seminar-like classes where kids were encouraged to discuss what they read in conjunction with current events. Draper also guaranteed parents that their children would emerge better writers from her classroom. One of Draper's writing assignments, in particular, became legendary. As part of their final grade, seniors at Walnut Hills High School were asked to produce a well-researched term paper. Draper's expectations were so high that the task was eventually dubbed "The Draper Paper." T-shirts were even designed and given only to those students who successfully met the challenge. Their shirts proudly boasted: "I Survived the Draper Paper."
Draper's classes were in high demand through the 1980s and 1990s, and in 1997 she was named Ohio's Teacher of the Year. In April 1997 the Cincinnati educator scored an even bigger honor when she earned the title U.S. Teacher of the Year. In the award ceremony held in Washington, D.C., President Bill Clinton applauded Draper for her many years of service. Jet magazine reprinted part of his speech: "For 27 years she has inspired students with her passion for literature and life. Sharon Draper is more than a credit to her profession, she is a true blessing to the children she has taught." When she accepted the award, Draper gave a nod to those who shared her profession. "I am so proud to be a teacher," she commented. "I'm proud of my colleagues, 3 million of us, who strive every day in the classrooms across the country to make a difference in the lives of students."
Following her win, Draper took a one-year leave of absence from the classroom to tour the United States as a teaching ambassador. She spoke at schools and at conferences, offering encouragement to educators and lecturing about quality teaching. She also reached out to businesses and community groups, reinforcing the need both to support education in general, and also support the contributions made by individual teachers every day. In addition, Draper became part of the National Board for Teaching Standards and contributed to a number of professional publications to push the need for teacher accountability and development. Essentially, Draper became a one-woman teacher advocate.
Being the Teacher of the Year ambassador kept Draper on the road more than twenty days a month. For the average person, such a hectic schedule would have been draining, but for Draper it must have been grueling considering she also had a second career as a published author. Her writing career began in 1990 on a whim. Draper had always encouraged her students to submit stories and poems to writing contests. One day, Draper explains on her Web site, a bold young man handed her a crumpled application form and said, "You think you so bad— why don't you write something! Enter this contest!" Draper accepted his challenge and submitted a short story to Ebony magazine's annual Gertrude Johnson Williams Literary Competition.
Months went by and Draper promptly forgot that she had even entered a contest. One day, however, she received a phone call that her short story, "One Small Torch," had taken first prize. Almost overnight the astonished Draper was in the national spotlight, and she began receiving letters and calls of congratulations—some from very famous writers. More importantly, the win ignited a spark in Draper, who decided to try her hand at a longer work of fiction. Ever the teacher, she had her students' best interest in mind. As she commented on her Web site, "I wanted to write something that young people could read that would be contemporary and exciting." She further explained, "I couldn't find anything they really liked to read, so I started writing for them myself."
The busy Draper wrote during any spare moment she could find, which meant stealing time on weekends, at night, and during study hall periods. Finally, at the end of a year she completed her first young adult novel, Tears of a Tiger. Success, however, did not come overnight. The manuscript was rejected by twenty-four different publishers before it was finally accepted by Simon … Schuster. As luck would have it, while she was waiting for Tears to be published, Draper was contacted by her agent who said that another publishing house, the African American-run Just Us Books, had inquired whether Draper had anything in the works for younger readers. The fledgling writer went back to work and churned out a mystery called Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs. In November 1994 both of Draper's books appeared on bookstore shelves on the same day.
Tears of a Tiger focuses on an African American teen named Andy Jackson, who struggles to come to terms with the death of his best friend, Robert. The two had been drinking, celebrating a high school basketball game victory, when they got into an automobile accident; Andy was driving the car. Draper uses a variety of devices to move the story along. Through journal entries, school writing assignments, and letters, readers are given insight into Andy's feelings and the reaction of his friends and family. As Draper told David Marc Fischer of Writing!, "For young people, the largest part of the day is spent in school. School is their world. So I make school assignments and activities vital parts of my stories."
Tears was the first book in what would become the Hazelwood High trilogy. The main character in the second title in the series, Forged by Fire (1997), is Gerald Nickelby, one of Andy's basketball teammates. Darkness Before Dawn (2001) follows Andy's girlfriend, Keisha, through her senior year of high school.
Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs also ended up being a trilogy, with all three books following the adventures of ten-year-old Ziggy, who forms a club called the Black Dinosaurs with his three best friends. Draper penned the series with African American boys in mind, drawing from the adventures of her own sons when they were children. And, just as she did in the Hazelwood High books, the teacher-turned-author mixes some "lessons" in with the adventure. In book two, Lost in the Tunnel of Time (1996), Ziggy and friends discover a tunnel once used as a station for the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a secret network used by African slaves during the nineteenth century as they traveled from southern slave states to freedom in the North. Shadows of Caesar's Creek (1997), which is the third title in the series, introduces Ziggy and readers to rituals and rites of the Shawnee Indian tribe.
Teachers latched on to Draper's books for making lesson plans, parents praised her for helping their children turn off the television and start turning pages, and kids raced to the library begging for more. In fact, as one teacher told Kelly Starling of Ebony, "Few books have elicited such strong emotion in my students as Tears of a Tiger. It's the only book some of them have read completely." Tears went on to become the 1995 American Library Association (ALA) Best Book for Young Adults; it also took home the Coretta Scott King Genesis Award, given annually to new African American authors. In 1998, Draper won her second Coretta Scott King award for Forged by Fire. According to the Seattle Times, the ALA jury commended Draper "for tackling troubling contemporary issues, and providing concrete options and positive African American role models."
Many of Draper's novels deal with topics that may be controversial, but that are a very real part of everyday life for some people. For example, 1999's Romiette and Julio takes on interracial dating and gang life, and Double Dutch, published in 2002, tackles illiteracy and child abandonment. When asked why she explores such tough subjects, Draper told David Marc Fischer, "Perhaps reading about the difficulties of others will act like an armor and protect my readers from the personal tragedies of their own lives."
Draper believes that her books help her readers in many ways. Gerald, the main character in Forged by Fire, lives in a violent home situation where he must protect his sister from their abusive father. Draper included phone numbers in the book for
Teacher-turned-author Sharon Draper is as dedicated to her readers as she was to her students during her thirty years spent in the classroom. She enjoys speaking to kids across the country who enthusiastically ask her questions about the writing process, the characters in her books, and how they can one day become writers themselves. In April 2005, Draper visited Whittier Middle School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she read excerpts from her books and fielded questions from her young fans. As one thirteen-year-old told Brenda Schmidt of the Argus Leader, "You do feel like you know her. It's a lot of fun to actually meet her and see her personality."
According to Draper, who spoke with Teri Lesesne of Teacher Librarian, "It's an awesome responsibility to have so much response to what I've written." As a result, she takes correspondence from fans very seriously and she reads every piece of e-mail she receives. Many of the questions posed by young readers are posted on Draper's Web site and give a glimpse into the life of the famous author. There are some questions that she will not answer because they are too personal (like how old she is); others Draper refuses to answer when she feels it would be completing kids' homework assignments (for example, discussing the themes found in her books). Here are some fun answers to some interesting questions posed to award-winning author Sharon Draper:
the National Child Abuse Hotline and the National Domestic Abuse Hotline. She explained to Fischer that she has received many letters from teens who have thanked her for including the numbers: "One girl wrote, 'I called that number and it saved my life.' It still gives me chills."
In 2004, Draper received her third Coretta Scott King Award for The Battle of Jericho (2003), which takes a frank look at yet another controversial topic: hazing rituals. Jericho is a talented high school trumpet player who is asked to join the prestigious community service organization called the Warriors of Distinction. In order to join the group new members must survive pledge initiation week. At first the tasks are harmless, but as the week progresses things start to take a negative turn. Ultimately, Jericho must decide whether staying with the group is worth losing his self-respect. According to critics the book is gripping and the plot full of twists and turns. Publishers Weekly called it "timely," and congratulated Draper for "driving home an important message about peer pressure."
By 2005 Draper had retired from teaching to pursue writing full time, but the dedicated professional could never truly stop being an educator. She currently serves on the Board of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, and she continues to travel around the world lecturing to groups of all ages about the power of education and the importance of literacy and reading. Draper is also a frequent guest on many U.S. television and radio programs.
For Draper, however, the best opportunities are when she visits schools and spends some one-on-one time with students. Draper told Teri Lesesne of Teacher Librarian, "I started writing as a result of my teaching, and now, my writing has become a teaching tool. I wrote for my students, for the kids I knew who didn't like to read, who weren't inspired by books or literature. Now the books are used in schools all over the country, teachers use them as learning tools for their classes, and when I speak to students at schools, all I really do is an extended version of what I've always done, which is teach."
Draper, Sharon. The Battle of Jericho. New York: Simon … Schuster, 2003.
Draper, Sharon. Forged by Fire. New York: Simon … Schuster, 1997.
Draper, Sharon. Tears of a Tiger. New York: Simon … Schuster, 1994.
Draper, Sharon. Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs. East Orange, N.J.: Just Us Books, 1994.
Draper, Sharon. Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs: Lost in the Tunnel of Time. East Orange, N.J.: Just Us Books, 1996.
Fischer, David Marc. "The Words Come So Easily: Interview with Sharon Draper." Writing! (November–December 2001): pp. 18–21.
"King, Caldecott, Newbery Honors Given." Seattle Times (January 13, 1998): p. E5.
Lesesne, Teri S. "To Instruct, To Inspire, To Entertain: The World of Sharon Draper." Teacher Librarian (October 2002): pp. 47–50.
Review of The Battle of Jericho. Publishers Weekly (June 9, 2003): p. 53.
Review of Double Dutch. Publishers Weekly (June 17, 2002): p. 66.
Starling, Kelly. "Ebony Contest-Winner Scores in Education and Art." Ebony (May 1998): pp. 126–129.
Zonnenberg, Arina. Review of Romiette and Julio. Journal of Adolescent … Adult Literacy (April 2002): p. 660.
Schmidt, Brenda Wade. "Author's Stops Put Face Behind the Novels." Argus.com (April 15, 2005). http://www.argusleader.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050414/NEWS06/504140305/1001/NEWS (accessed on August 23, 2005).
Sharon Draper Web Site. http://sharondraper.com/ (accessed on August 23, 2005).