Stella by Starlight

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Stella by Starlight Book Poster Image
Compelling, nuanced tale of loving family under segregation.

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age 10+
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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The characters' experiences bring to life the matter-of-fact, day-to-day experiences of people -- African-American and white -- living under segregation and how they cope. Author Sharon M. Draper vividly shows the determination of African-American men to register to vote and puts it in the context of Franklin D. Roosevelt's election in the depths of the Depression. Along the way, the characters sing a lot of traditional gospel songs, some of which will be new to young readers.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about showing courage and standing up for what's right; families and communities who love and look out for one another; and determination to learn and make something of yourself.

Positive Role Models & Representations

There are quite a few bad people in this story, from the white doctor who won't treat African-American patients and who once slapped Stella when she was a small child, to the Klan bullies who dress up in white robes and burn down a family's home. The foreman at the local lumber mill treats his workers horribly. But they aren't allowed to define the lives of Stella, her family, and her community, and support comes from unexpected quarters, such as a platoon of white church ladies who pitch in when disaster strikes. Stella loves school, and her parents work hard and make courageous choices in hopes of a better future for their kids. Several men in Stella's community brave the wrath of the Klan and register to vote. Stella shows courage and creative thinking in the search for a lost child.

Violence

Stella still has painful memories of the time the town's white doctor slapped her hard because she accidentally got a bit of mud on his shoe; later, a mom almost dies because the white doctor refuses to treat African-American patients. A young character reveals that her father beats her and her mother. One African-American family is fatherless; their dad was "accidentally" killed in a lumber mill accident just when he was about to go into business for himself. Throughout the story, the Klan is doing its best to terrorize the local African-American people, burning crosses and eventually torching a family's home. There's a constant menacing presence, but the emphasis is on those who rise above it.

Sex

Stella is good friends with a boy in her class, but there's no romance.

Language

Stella's family has an outhouse, and her brother refers to going there to "tee-tee." Stella has to clean the hen house and complains about the poop.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Stella by Starlight, by award-winning author Sharon M. Draper (Out of My Mind), deals with life in the segregated South of 1932, as seen by a bright young 11-year-old girl growing up African-American in Bumblebee, North Carolina. Violence looms, in the form of fatal on-the-job "accidents" and Klan arson, as well as young Stella's memories of the town's white doctor hitting her 5-year-old self as hard as he could because she got a bit of mud on his shoe. But the violence is overshadowed by the love, courage, and resourcefulness of the community, and support often comes from unlikely quarters. Set in the days leading up to Franklin D. Roosevelt's election, it's a relatable, inspiring tale likely to spark intriguing discussions.

User Reviews

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Kid, 9 years old November 19, 2017

The Most Touching, Moving Book I Have Read Since R.J. Palacio's Wonder!

This book may look small, but inside is such a passionate, heartfelt story narrated by a young girl that all readers of any age will love. Be warned, for this b... Continue reading

What's the story?

It's 1932 in the segregated South -- Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact, where 11-year-old Stella is growing up poor, smart, and African-American in a loving family. Life is mostly peaceful, but deadly violence is only as far away as the next Klan rally, when the local bigots decide that Bumblebee's black people need scaring. In this constantly oppressive climate, the adults of Stella's community struggle and sacrifice to give their kids a better future, often accepting shockingly bad treatment to keep the peace and their jobs. Then Stella and her younger brother (who's on a late-night trip to the outhouse) see a fire burning across the river. It's a Klan rally, clearly designed to scare them -- which gets an unexpected response from the community's pastor.

Is it any good?

STELLA BY STARLIGHT is a compelling, relatable story inspired by the author's memories of her own grandmother's childhood tales. It deftly brings home the perilous realities defining African-American life in the rural, segregated South, from the Ku Klux Klan burning down the house of an African-American family whose father had just registered to vote to the thousand daily slights and insults. But, against that ominous backdrop, Stella's family and neighbors stand strong, held together by faith, hope, charity, and a lot of courage. Most modern-day kids will be startled by details Stella takes for granted, not only that she and the other African-American kids can't go to the white school (which, of course, has much better facilities) but that they all go to school barefoot because they don't own shoes. 

Stella by Starlight (the same title as the jazz standard, written in 1944) is an appealing, thought-provoking read for kids and adults -- and a standout for introducing kids to a difficult chapter in U.S. history with compelling courage and relatable characters rather than graphic violence. Expect interesting conversations.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about racism's role in U.S. history. Why do you think it ever became an issue? Do you see examples of it in the world around you? What do you think you can do about it yourself?

  • What do you know about the history of civil rights in the United States? Why do you think African-Americans registering to vote was such a big deal in the 20th century? 

  • Have you read any other books or heard other stories about characters living in a society where one's rights depend on skin color or something else that can't be changed? How does the limitation affect their lives? What do they do about it?

Book details

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