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How to Talk to Your Kids About Disabilities, According to YA Author Sharon M. Draper

It was 2010 when author Sharon M. Draper introduced readers to Melody, an 11-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, in the book Out of My Mind. The character immediately resonated with readers not only nationwide, but worldwide. The book has been translated into 22 different languages and has had a steady spot on the New York Times bestseller list for years. So what made this book so special? We’ll say it’s the candid and gripping story of a fifth-grade girl who is so very intelligent, but she can’t walk, talk or write, so she’s frustrated by the physical limitations and misunderstandings that happen in her world. It’s a perspective we don’t hear about enough, but it’s a life that is relatable to readers just like Melody — as well as those who are not — because, as Draper points out, “there are many kinds of disabilities, and some are bigger than others.”

Although Draper had so much success with the book, she was not so sure that she wanted to continue to write about Melody. But she couldn’t deny the legions of students, teachers and parents who had been asking her over the years: “What happened to Melody?” Draper, who enjoyed a 25-year career as a school teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was (not surprisingly) named National Teacher of the Year, took the time she had in quarantine and gave us an answer. Out of My Heart, the sequel to Out of My Mind, will be available November 9, 2021 and continue Melody’s story as she’s a year older, a year braver and headed to summer camp.

Here, Draper, who has written dozen of books for young readers and is a mom to four adult children (two sons and two daughters), chats with us about her career as a teacher, her books, and how to discuss disabilities with your kids.

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Everyone is eager to learn about your new book, Out of My Heart. Can you give us a hint as to what it’s about?

I always said that I would never write a sequel. I said what I had to say in Out of My Mind and then I dropped the mic. Then, I decided to pick the mic back up [laughs]. I have received so many letters and emails in response to Out of My Mind, which has been translated in 22 different languages, and the response has been incredible. I said, I must continue her story.

So, how do you go about improving on such an inspiring story?

How do you improve upon a story everyone seems to like? I had to change her whole set-up. In the first book, she has her parents, caregivers, doctors and classmates. For this new book, she goes to summer camp for kids with special needs. She finds the camp herself online and she does all the investigating. She meets her counselor, Trinity, and her team, the orange team. She is absorbed into her life at summer camp and figuring out her routines — where and what to eat, getting to bed in the bunks, taking a shower — but then there are boys at the camp. They’re across the way, but they share meals and activities together. She’s never had any positive interactions with boys and she’s almost 13. This is new, so she tiptoes in that direction.

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Melody is growing up…

Yes, and when you have a disability, you focus on what you have, but when you encounter people with different disabilities you learn even more. She has fun, which she’s never had. And she makes friends, which she’s never had. She discovers she’s stronger than she thinks.

How do you think being a mother and teacher gives you a different perspective on childhood and writing children’s books?

I was a teacher for over 20 years, so I understand all of the age groups because I taught them all and I’ve raised them all. You learn a lot about kids just by talking to them. So besides teaching in my school, I’ve been to schools all over the country and world, and talked to them, listened to them, observed them.

Has there been a funny moment where your own family has read your books?

Recently, my grandson who’s in 8th grade got assigned Tears of a Tiger to read this year. He said, “You wrote this? This is pretty good!”

Why do you think it’s important to discuss disabilities with our kids?

When I would go to schools back in the day, I’d survey the classroom and ask the kids to stand up if they wear eyeglasses or contacts. If you have glasses, you have a disability. My glasses assist me in being successful in my life because I can’t really see without them. What I write about is people who have the same kind of disabilities, but they’re a bit larger. Melody cannot make it without her wheelchair, Noah can’t make it without his walker. So, there are many kinds of disabilities, and some are bigger than others, and we require different tools to help us navigate life.

Outside of a school setting, how do you think it’s best to start that conversation?

I would use the same kind of logic [as the eyeglass and contacts analogy] to explain the necessity these kids have for their devices. This generation of kids, I feel hopeful about them because they are not intimidated by labels or definitions. They’re outspoken about who they are and their place in the world. They’re pretty open about accepting people into their world. I think it’s a good time for this book. The fact that Melody is in a wheelchair is secondary to her being this 12-year-old away from her family for the first time. It’s secondary to her making friends and maybe even having a crush on a boy for the first time. One book can’t answer all the questions, but one book can add to the conversation. And that’s what I hope to do.

You have written so many books over the course of your career. What are your goals for the future? Do you have another story simmering?

A lot of what is in this new book is inspired by the letters and emails I got from kids over the years. The influence that the first book had blew me away. I have no plans right now to write a third book, but we’ll see.

Will you be doing any virtual book tours?

Until it’s completely safe for me to be in a room with children, I’ll do things online. I’m looking forward to when it’s safe enough to come back together. I miss attending all the events when a glorious speaker would be in a room of students and readers and we all cheer…I miss that. I really miss that.

Before you go, check out these children’s books by Black authors.

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