Our class had a great conversation this week about judging quality writing. I made a snarky remark about Bomb receiving a Newbery Honor in response to a couple of students criticizing the writing. One student keenly asked, “Why does it matter if it has this aluminum sticker on it?” Even though I had to bite my tongue, I responded kindly–or at least I remember it as such, but I could be wrong. Looking back, though, I do think her argument is solid: What are we telling kids when they want to challenge the quality of a book? You’re wrong because there is a sticker.
I’m reminded of this because next week’s reading is my favorite book on the list for this semester: Copper Sun, by Sharon Draper. This novel earned Draper the Correta Scott King Award, which annually recognizes outstanding African-American writers and illustrators in the field of young adult books about the African-American experience. Copper Sun was also a National Book Award finalist. So needless to say, it would be easy for me to point to the stickers on the book if anyone wants to disagree with me that it’s beautifully written.
But that is not what I’m going to do, especially after feeling as if I lost the last argument. Instead, I’d like to discuss why I think this book is so great.
When done well, historical fiction takes you back in time not only in the details but in how it felt to be alive back then, and I think that is what Copper Sun does so well. I felt at home with Amari in the opening pages when Draper describes a typical day with her family:
Amari and her mother scurried around their small dwelling, rolling up the sleeping mats and sweeping the dirt floor with a broom made of branches. Throughout the village, the pungent smells of goat stew and peanut soup, along with waves of papaya and honeysuckle that wafted through the air, made Amari feel hungry and excited. The air was fragrant with hope and possibility. (p. 6)
Draper creates this type of imagery throughout the start of the novel, and sets up a wonderful life that Amari has before being taken. The brief description of the village matches the final sentence of “hope and possibility.” We experience Amari’s daily routine through active verbs and the strongest tie to memory, our sense of smell, which places the reader into the details of her life. Much like our grandparents house or of dinner throughout your home after a long day of work, our sense of smell can trigger memories and create a sense of comfort better than any of our other senses.
What makes this scene so important, though, is that it sets us up for the awful scene when Amari is taken, and parallels what precedes the opening chapter that foreshadows the terrible sequence of events:
Amari shuffled in the dirt as she was led into the yard and up onto a raised wooden table, which she realized gave the people in the yard a perfect view of the women who were to be sold. She looked at the faces in the sea of pink-skinned people who stood around pointing at the captives and jabbering in their language as each of the slaves was described. She looked for pity or even understanding but found nothing except cool stares. They looked at her as if she were a cow for sale.
This is a stark contrast from “hope and possibility.” Her feelings of excitement and the comfort knowing that her needs are cared for are replaced with a search for “pity,” only to be left with a feeling that she is no longer human.
From there, Draper takes us on a long ride through the slave trade and what it’s like to be a slave in America during the 1730s through the eyes of a 15 year-old girl. She shows us how wonderful the details of our life can be by giving us the horrors of what the human race is capable of doing.
I think this book is heart-wrenching and brilliantly exciting and inspiring. I think this book deserves a sticker or two. What about you? I’d like you to tell me what you thought of Draper’s craft. Do you like her style? Why or why not? Be sure to use evidence to support your claims.