Author visiting Cario Middle shares inspiration, plot of latest novel aimed at young teens

Award-winning author Sharon Draper holds up one of her books before encouraging students at Cario Middle School to act out a scene from one of her novels during an assembly March 29.

The majority of the 450 Cario Middle School sixth-graders screamed when award-winning author Sharon Draper asked them if they would hop into a van with a picture of Justin Bieber on the side if the driver asked them to be in the pop star's next video?

She told them they might have been kidnapped by a pedophile and never seen again.

"You think you are so smart," Draper said. "You are not as smart as you think you are."

Draper visited Cario Middle School on March 29. JoAnn Jarman, the school's media specialist, said the school used proceeds from three school book fair fundraisers to pay Draper's $3,500 speaking fee plus airfare, hoping time with the media center's most popular author would inspire students to read more.

"Our kids really relate to her books, especially the males -- a hard target to reach," Jarman said.

During a morning presentation, Draper told students that inspiration for her books come from young people like themselves.

"A lot of my ideas come from you. What you wear. The way you do your hair. What kinds of things you talk about."

The main character of the book she's writing today finds herself in a situation similar to the one Cario Middle students might have been in if they had hopped into the van.

Draper said the girl is in big trouble and wonders how she could be so stupid.

It will be a while before that book is released, but Draper has published more than 20 novels, the majority of them aimed at middle school audiences.

Draper, a former English teacher from Ohio, told students that she never thought she would become an author. In 1990, a student brought her an entry for the Gertrude Johnson Williams Literary Contest sponsored by Ebony magazine. The boy told her if she was so great why didn't she try to write something. She said she had no intention of entering the contest. The student who challenged her didn't even do his homework.

After reviewing the contest rules, she wrote three typed pages about a boy and his mother in a grocery store and took first place out of thousands of entries. She received $5,000 and took her children shopping and told them that they could have whatever they wanted.

"They said, 'Mom, write something else,' " Draper said.

Her first book, "Tears of a Tiger," a story about how a high school student copes after his friend dies in a car accident he caused, won a Coretta Scott King Book Award.

It took her two years to write it, two years to edit it and two more to find a publisher. It was rejected 25 times.

She wrote three more books while continuing to teach. She told students she made about 15 cents for every book sold.

"You do stuff because you love it," Draper said.

St. James-Santee Elementary and Laing Middle school students also attended Draper's presentations.

Students waiting in line for Draper's autograph said they liked her books for her descriptive writing style and were excited to meet her so they could ask her questions about her stories.

"After she talks to them," Jarman said, "they will want to read even more."

Reach Jessica Miller at 937-5921.