In her new novel for young readers, Ohio-born Sharon M. Draper returns to the intelligent, captivating 12-year-old Melody, who refuses to let her life be defined by her cerebral palsy.
“Out of My Heart,” out November 9, picks up Melody’s story after her dramatic experiences on her school’s quiz team in the first book, “Out of My Mind.”
Melody makes her wishes known through her talking computer named Elvira and persuades her family to send her to a camp in Ohio for disabled children. There she sleeps with other otherwise gifted girls and experiences things she has never done before: swimming, taking a boat trip and even horseback riding, a challenge for a girl who is in a wheelchair.
Ten years after the release of “Out of My Mind,” Draper said, her young readers “wanted to know what really happened to Melody.”
A longtime teacher in Cincinnati and named National Teacher of the Year in 1997, Draper started writing in 1990 when one of her students challenged her to enter an Ebony magazine competition. She took first place and launched her career writing for high school students and young adults. Her many books include the young adult trilogy ‘Tears of a Tiger’, ‘Forged by Fire’ and ‘Darkness Before Dawn’; and “Copper Sun,” a critically acclaimed slavery story.
Draper, 73, who now lives in Florida but often returns to Ohio, recently spoke with The shipment.
Q: What sparked your interest in writing about a girl with cerebral palsy?
drape: When I was a teenager, I spent every summer volunteering at a camp in Ohio for children with disabilities. The first thing you learn is that when you roll a wheelchair down a hill, you do it backwards. You never want the client to look forward where, presumably, there could be a forward tumble. There are countless such things to learn.
Q: How did you come to write accurately about cerebral palsy?
drape: I have relatives with cerebral palsy, I have had students with them and students with all kinds of disabilities. I have enough experience to be honest about it, but with this book — where the campers all have different disabilities — I had to work really hard to make sure I got it right.
Q: You are an African American writer, but some of your books do not allow readers to identify the race of the characters. Is Melody a black girl?
drape: I do not know. Race was not important to this book. If you have a handicap, it doesn’t really matter what color you are. Your wheelchair or your crutches don’t matter. I wanted to focus on what these kids could do. The first book, “Out of My Mind”, was translated into 23 languages, so Melody can be French, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese or Chinese.
Q: What was reading like for you when you were a child?
drape: From the age of three, my mother took me to the library every Saturday. You could read 10 books at once and that’s what I would do. It didn’t take long for me to read everything on the elementary side of the library. The librarian was my best friend and the library was my second home. I’m now working on a book in which the main character hangs out in the library all the time.
Q: You taught in Cincinnati public schools for many years. Do you miss it?
drape: New. When I stopped teaching, I had started writing, so I had to go to school and I still taught that way. I just switched from one form of teaching to another.
Q: Do you find it difficult to write for young readers now that you don’t see them in class and as you get older?
drape: I don’t think so, I’ve been doing it for so long now, I’m a bit comfortable with the area. A 12-year-old has the same insecurities wherever and whenever they live. I think there is a universality that I can capture. Plus I have 12 year olds around me (in my family) so I can keep up with music and trends and they’ll tell me if I’m free. They’ll say, “Don’t put that in your book!”
Q: Is any of your books banned?
drape: An. I believe it was (the high school story) “Tears of the Tiger” and it was in a small town in Michigan (where they invited me) to speak. The director didn’t invite me because he said he had read the book and there were no sympathetic white characters in it. Usually teachers appreciate the fact that I have a wide variety of characters. Sometimes the race is announced and sometimes not.
Q: Do you think you will return to Melody in another book?
drape: Well, it took me 10 years to write the sequel, so I don’t know. I’m not saying never, but it won’t be soon.
Q: Are there any plans to write an adult book?
drape: New. I don’t want to deal with blood, guts and sex.
Q: What do your young fans ask of you?
drape: They want to know if what I write is true and I say no, I lie for a living. I make things up. But if you do a good job with fiction and people think it’s true, then you’ve done your job.