“Giving Gifts,” an Essay on Stella by Starlight
Sixth graders recently read Stella by Starlight, a novel set during the Jim Crow era in North Carolina. The book’s main character, Stella, starts a newspaper to try to improve her writing skills. After finishing the book, students were asked to write an essay examining one of Stella’s articles and explaining how its theme relates to the rest of the book. Here’s an excerpt of Jema D.’s essay on the novel, written by Sharon Draper.
Stella Mills, an 11 year old African-American girl, has always wanted to be something more than just herself. Ever since she and her brother Jojo saw the KKK across the lake late one chilly October night, her world has become more complicated than it ever has been before. In 1932, the segregated southern town of Bumblebee, NC, is a community almost entirely divided in half. The children go to separate schools depending on their race, and there have always been people that black children know to avoid. Every African-American family in Bumblebee followed 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.” If they wanted change, they knew that they would have to bring it themselves. Throughout this book, Stella and her family implement change by standing together, despite the fact that the KKK is trying to burn their entire world to the ground.
While witnessing the war that her community has waged against the KKK, Stella documents her experiences through a mini newspaper called Stella’s Star Sentinel. She draws inspiration from the newsprint that covers the walls of her home and begins to write a series of short articles, explaining how different occurrences in her life have made an impact on her. Through these articles, Stella often looks at what life would be like as another person. She observes both the obvious things, like the differences between her lifestyle and that of the white children’s, but also some of the less obvious, and more personal things like what it would be like to have a special skill or talent. For example: Stella often expresses her dislike of writing. At the beginning of the book, she viewed it as her greatest weakness, and had snuck out at night on multiple occasions to practice. Despite the fact that she begins to enjoy it more as the story goes on, Stella still believes that the only way she will ever really be good at writing is if she had gotten a gift from god.
In the article she writes titled “Gifts,” Stella wonders about what it would be like to have the gift of writing. Stella’s mama says that everybody has gifts. Like knowing which plants are safe to eat and which plants aren’t, or Tony’s love of running, but Stella isn’t sure she has a gift herself. Everybody knows that running is Tony’s passion, even that he secretly sneaks into the white school to practice at night. And they let him, though it is forbidden, because they realize that running is one of Tony’s few joys in life. As Stella’s dad says, “Young Anthony practices because running is in his heart. He runs at night to get better, to improve, to feel the wind on his face.” Though sometimes Stella envies that feeling. She has not yet found something that gives her the same sense of exhilaration that Tony gets when he runs. When she sneaks out at night to write, it is because she feels like writing is her greatest weakness, not because it is her greatest strength. She tells her father,“But Papa, you said it yourself, it’s in his heart. I’m just trying to not be the worst kid at writing in Mrs. Grayson’s class.”
Stella never meant for anyone else to read her writing when she started practicing. Before she got her typewriter and started writing the articles, the only reason Stella wrote outside of school was to improve her skills and make writing less of a challenge. But when her teacher Mrs. Grayson announces that their school will be entering a writing contest, and that the winners will have their pieces featured in a real newspaper, Stella starts to think about whether or not she dares to share her experiences with people other than herself. So she writes an essay called “Slaying Dragons,” comparing fictional dragons to the Klan, who were almost too real. She says, “I think the Ku Klux Klan chose the dragon as their symbol because it is scary. The people around here who dress up in bedsheets and call themselves dragons are very real.” Choosing an essay about something as serious as the Klan was too big a risk for Mrs. Grayson to take, but even if her essay wasn’t picked, writing about how the KKK affected her life made Stella realize how powerful the force of communication really is.