An EXCLUSIVE AUTHORLINK interview with Sharon M. Draper
Out of My Heart (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 9 November 2021).
Sharon M. Draper is a professional educator and an accomplished writer. She was recognized as the National Teacher of the Year, is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Literary Awards, is a New York Times bestselling author and has been honored at the White House six times!
Her middle-grade books, Copper Sun (2006) and Out of My Mind (2010), have both been named as TIME’S Best YA Book of All Time. Out of My Mind has appeared on over 40 state award reading lists.
It’s about brilliant Melody Brooks, an 11-year-old girl who will not let cerebral palsy define who she is. She might have physical limitations, but she has a photographic memory and can relay her thoughts and opinions with a communication board.
Ten years later, Sharon M. Draper has written Out of my Heart, the stunning sequel, which has already been on New York Times best-seller list for 21 weeks and counting!
Melody is now a year older and a year braver. With her Medi-talker, she feels nothing is beyond her reach, not even summer camp, creatures of the night or even boys.
“A deeply satisfying and worthy continuation of a beloved story.” — Kirkus Reviews, STARRED.
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Draper, we are thrilled to be talking to you today here at Authorlink. Thank you for sharing your busy schedule with us!
Children with disabilities are sometimes overlooked and underestimated. Your best-seller Out of My Mind (2010) has been in regular appearance on the New York Times best-seller list for over ten years and counting. It allows readers to live inside the mind of a disabled child, locked in as it were, and illustrates how the power of language sets them free.
Do you believe public awareness and understanding of people with disabilities has changed for the better since you published Out of my Mind? If so, in what ways?
DRAPER: Out of my Mind was first released in 2010. Although it has been read by many children and adults, I certainly have no illusions that the book has changed public awareness. From letters I’ve received from young people, they tell me that the book made them think about the lives of others, about those who functioned differently in the world. They tell me they have thought about the importance of kindness and empathy, and even inclusion. Some readers have told me they’d decided to work in medicine or therapy. Some just tell me they realize the importance of being kind.
“We all have to work harder to live together…”
If the world is changed by adding more kindness or understanding, or compassion, then I’m glad I wrote the book. Fiction can be an important reflection on reality, but one book cannot change the thoughts and actions of others. We all have to work harder to live together with those who are not the same as those we might be accustomed to.
AUTHORLINK: True words indeed. You had always felt that Out of my Mind was a stand-alone book and needed no sequel. However, over the years, as you have authored other books and traveled the world visiting schools, libraries, and conferences, we understand you received thousands of letters and emails asking about Melody, the main character in Out of my Mind. She is so remarkable that she was embedded into the hearts of your readers – as if she were a real person.
Is this how the sequel Out of my Heart was born.
Was Melody ever far from your mind and heart, too, over the years?
Was it difficult picking up her ‘voice’ again after so many years of absence? Did she seem a little different to you when you were reacquainted?
DRAPER: I must admit that the hundreds of letters I’ve received from teachers and students, and other readers had a very strong influence on my decision to write a sequel. I honestly felt like I had created a character that spoke to the world sufficiently. But apparently, she had to say more.
We were in the middle of a pandemic. The world was shut down, with no opportunities for travel or school visits or library conferences. I truly missed the human interaction, so I answered the silence with research and writing. It was not difficult to find Melody’s voice again because she still lived within me. I knew she had more to say. So I placed her in a new environment, with the opportunity to have adventures, and most importantly, finally make friends.
AUTHORLINK: It’s terrific. In Out of my Heart, Melody attends a summer camp for the first time. The camp is designed for children with disabilities. Melody is now 12 and basically “conquered all the school-related problems that she could conquer,” and in a completely different environment and alone.
In your book, you mention Camp Stepping Stones, Camp Allyn, and Camp Cheerful and have, in fact, supported their programs for years. Your children worked there as volunteers a couple of summers when they were teenagers.
What is your research process? Did you learn anything about these camps that surprised or delighted you?
DRAPER: All of the above-mentioned camps are located in Ohio, where I lived most of my life. I’m familiar with them and thankful for the services they offer. I have visited them over the years from time to time and even served on a board of one of them for a short time. I also did extensive online research of camps like Green Glades, which exist in nearly every state. I’ve spoken to campers, the parents of campers, the volunteers, the fundraisers, and the camp administrators.
“I blended all of my research into the fictional Camp Green Glades.”
I blended all of my research into the fictional Camp Green Glades. I placed it in Ohio because I could accurately describe the weather, the trees, the wildlife, and the birds that might be at a camp.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, it was like being there! Writing for young readers must be more challenging than ever. What is your secret? Other than urging young people to read what interests them, like, say, a Minecraft manual, how can they appreciate the classics if they are never exposed to them other than at school? Even kids who used to be read to or loved to read themselves have their noses stuck in their phones nowadays, especially when the tween years hit.
As an educator and a successful writer of children’s fiction, how do we get a reluctant reader to read in times of electronic devices, social media, and the solitary confines of Covid?
What kind of advice or thoughts can you offer to return our kids to the magic of books?
DRAPER: Writing for young readers is really not any more challenging than in the past. It’s actually thrilling to write words that capture their ever-changing wants and needs. Even though today’s middle-graders are a lot more sophisticated than I used to be, with incredible communication devices at their fingertips, I still find that a really well-written story can engage them if I can get their attention in chapter one.
Many young people began to read more during the pandemic shut-down because television became a boring repetition, and a good book became an unexpected friend. Many young readers to write to me and tell me they discovered books during that period.
I must give a shout-out here to librarians, who also helped during this time, some even hand-delivering books to kids in their neighborhoods. And we must remember that those phones, which can connect to any place on the internet, can also download books for them to read. Just because they might not be holding a paper book in hand, the young people who contact me are still reading! I’m not giving up on their generation. They will change the world in ways we cannot imagine.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, very wise. Have you had any challenges, bad experiences, or roadblocks on your path to publishing?
DRAPER: My first book, Tears of a Tiger, was submitted to twenty-five publishing companies. I received twenty-four letters of rejection. This was when such letters came in the mail, so the process was slow and agonizing and depressing. But the very last letter, however, was from Simon and Schuster, who said yes! Since that time, I’ve stayed with the company, and I’ve had the opportunity to publish many, many books. Each book is an effort and we go through dozens of revisions to make it the best possible reading opportunity for a young person.
“Each book is an effort and we go through dozens of revisions…”
AUTHORLINK: You write about incredibly challenging subject matters about the young and adolescent experience. What draws you to those types of difficult circumstances in your material? Is it a way of arming your readers from tragedy, looking at it from the outside, so they do not have to experience it personally?
DRAPER: I write about incredibly challenging subject matters about the young adolescent experience. I taught this age group for twenty years—I loved and nurtured them as they attempted to navigate the road to adulthood. Novels and poetry were often great avenues for discussion and growth. All young people this age, regardless of race, go through the pains of growing up and figuring out their life’s path. When I was a teacher, I taught all the kids who showed up—tall, short, Asian, Hispanic, Black, White, gifted, and challenged. They are who I write for.
Many of my characters are African American because when I was a child there were no books about kids who looked like me. However, in many instances, I never even mention the race of the character. I focus on ALL children when I write. I do NOT write for one race.
And no, I’m not arming my readers from tragedy. I’m simply giving them good books to read, characters to identify with, situations to discuss. I’m offering them stories I didn’t have when I was a child, and ideas to think about the world around them. A book should be both a mirror and a window, reflecting on personal realities and opening visions to possibilities.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, you are absolutely right. We love the expression “Window and Mirror books” initially introduced by educator and writer Emily Style. A mirror book reflects the reader’s own culture and helps to build a positive identity. A window book offers the reader a view into someone else’s culture or experience. Is it our imagination, or do schools in the U.S. (U.K., Australia, etc.) no longer focus on grammar, sentence structure, and paragraphs in longer written works, in your opinion?
If so, why do you think this has happened? How can we help our children in this regard?
DRAPER: When I taught, I focused on old-fashioned skills like grammar and sentence structure. I feel that understanding the basis of a language greatly improves one’s usage of it. For example, I’m fairly fluent in French, and I often wondered how and why they placed nouns and adjectives within their sentence structure. In today’s world of texting and bits of language being accepted as complete thoughts, English is once again being changed. I can read some parts of Beowulf in Old English, a bit more of Shakespeare in medieval English, and very little of a modern twelve-year-old’s text message. The language is constantly evolving. I’m sure Shakespeare would be appalled at what we’ve done to the English language he so gracefully defined.
“I applaud teachers who focus on reading and language…”
I applaud teachers who focus on reading and language and the understanding of both. But it’s hard these days—schools have changed since the pandemic, and teachers struggle just to keep up. I give them SO much praise and honor because the expectations for teachers are higher, yet the support they need is lower.
We need to improve dignity, recognition, and support for the folks who figured out how to teach by distance learning almost overnight. There was no planning, no preparation—it was an emergency. And teachers rose to the occasion and led their students through a situation no one had ever even imagined, that nobody even knew HOW to do. Yet, they did it with skill and alacrity. And this was while overseeing their own children who were learning at home as well. I salute every single teacher who created and managed a world that had to be invented on the spot, a world that nobody knew how to do, and yet they did it supremely! Every single one of them deserves praise, recognition, and a raise!
AUTHORLINK: Yes, you are so right. Teachers and nurses are the unsung heroes of the pandemic. You have been honored at the White House six times, met three presidents, and were chosen as one of only four authors in the nation to speak at the Library of Congress National Book Festival Gala in Washington, D.C.!
It doesn’t get better than this! How did that feel? Your family and friends must be so proud.
You even met Maya Angelou once. Describe that experience.
Is there someone else you would like to meet? Oprah? We bet she would love to meet you!
If you could invite three dinner guests to your home, with us or passed, well-known or unknown, who would they be?
DRAPER: Those are memories I will always treasure. It’s thrilling to meet dignitaries and to be honored at some of the most prestigious events. One of the best memories of one of my visits to the White House was when I got to take my mother, who is now 96 years old. We were told that no photos could be taken in certain areas. My mother, of course, ignored that and snapped her little Kodak camera at every opportunity. I was embarrassed and a little fearful we’d get in trouble, so I tried to take her camera. President Clinton looked over and said, “You let your Mama take any photo she wants!” She looked at me with a victory flip of her hair and continued snapping. Those pictures ended up being the best ones of the day.
It’s thrilling to be honored in public venues, and I will be forever thankful for those opportunities. Yes, I met Maya Angelou. That occurred because one of my former students who worked on her security team got me a front row ticket and a chance to be in the room with her. She smiled graciously, but we never had a conversation. But that was enough.
I’ve been honored all over the world. I got to touch the pyramids of Egypt as well as the rocks of Stonehenge. I’ve received honors and accolades and awards. But one of my most memorable interactions was with a young man in Tennessee. It happened at Alex Haley’s farm, which is now preserved as a place of study and learning. The place was extra special for me because when I first started writing, Alex Haley took the time to write to me and tell me I had potential. On this particular day, all the students had been given copies of one of my books, but we had run out. He ran up to me as I sat on a porch in a chair once used by Alex Haley. He looked despondent. I dug into my bag, and gave him my personal copy—worn, well-used, and marked up. He bounded off that porch, running to catch the others, yelling with victory, “I got the book! I got the book!” That memory still makes me smile. That is the essence of what I do.
If I could invite three dinner guests, I’d invite Barack Obama, my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Mann, and my father, who was the valedictorian of his school but was not allowed to continue his education.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you for sharing these with us. We love the story about your mother and the young man in Tennessee. When you traveled to Ghana, West Africa, in 2001, you visited the Point of No Return and the ‘castles’ where once thousands of enslaved people were held in preparation for boarding ships to the Americas. This moving experience inspired you, after ten years of writing contemporary realistic fiction, to write Copper Sun (2006). This was your debut historical fiction novel and addressed the Transatlantic Slave Trade, slavery in America, and freedom.
When First Lady Laura Bush invited you to the National Book Festival in 2007, you asked adolescents in the audience to think deeply about the slave experience by using volunteers to recreate a scene from the novel. How inspiring.
How long did it take you to write Copper Sun? Did you write out a plot first, or did you start writing and follow wherever the story took you?
DRAPER: Copper Sun took ten years to write. It grew and developed as I did research. I returned to Africa four times, just to make sure I told this story correctly.
One message I ALWAYS pass on to students when we discuss Copper Sun is this:
I ask them: True or False—During the period in history of the slave trade, thousands of slaves were taken from Africa. Students think for a minute, sometimes uncomfortably. But most respond TRUE, their teachers included. I then tell them that sentence is FALSE. Then I ask them why. They usually don’t know.
The answer is this: Thousands of HUMAN BEINGS were taken from their homes and then were forced into slavery. They were not slaves when they left their homeland. They were mothers and fathers and children and grandmothers and families. Then they were enslaved and mistreated and taken to a place from which they could not escape back to their homeland. No slaves were taken. Just people. Who were made into slaves.
After several trips to Africa for research and knowledge and understanding, I wrote Copper Sun. I did tons of research, focusing on tiny details like the type of shoes a man would wear at the time, or the order of ceremony in an African village. I included the subject of indentured servants, as Polly’s future as an adult looked like freedom, while Amari could only look forward to fear of more slavery.
I learned so much during those years of research and visits to Africa. I loved the warmth of the sun, the sweetness of the fruit, the kindness and generosity, and pride of the people. Copper Sun is the gift of my heart to all those who were forced through that “door of no return,” to those ancestors who died and those who lived. It is dedicated to them.
AUTHORLINK: How moving. As mentioned above, no one could be better qualified to author novels for preteens and teens than you, with the wealth of your teaching history. In addition, you are fully aware of who your readers are and what issues they might face.
For example, you said once, “…the main character in Copper Sun is an enslaved teenager from Ghana in 1738. How she faces those challenges and how I pull my readers into her life and her pain makes the book powerful. They close the book never realizing they have learned about slavery and history and global ethics. They just know they will never forget Amari. So yes, we need to discuss race, and we can do it through great literature.” (OCTOBER 22, 2014 (A PUBLICATION OF PARNASSOS BOOKS) (MUSINGS))
This is the gift you have. Helping young people live in the shoes of another person and learning about history at the same time.
What are other ways young people can learn what it is like to live the life of another person less fortunate than them?
DRAPER: I learned about the world through reading. I once read a book about a Chinese concubine (At the time I didn’t even know what that was!). But I learned soo much about Chinese history. It led me to read and research about a culture I knew nothing about. When I got to visit China as an adult, that book helped me to understand the history and architecture I was seeing, the lives of people from centuries ago, the pain of love and loss through characters created by a writer.
That was my life as a child—I was an avid reader, gulping the stories from my library shelves, learning about other cultures, other worlds, other histories. That’s the power of writing. It can transport a reader to worlds unknown. I thank the hundreds of authors who inspired me as a child. I gulped books and stories like sweet lemonade. I read about kids who went to Mars, kids who invented homework machines, kids who could fly or become invisible, kids who lived ordinary lives but had extraordinary adventures. I thank every single one of the authors who wrote those books for me, who gave me a world to dream about. And I thank the librarians at my local libraries who guided my thirst for stories.
“The best advice I can give to young people is to find a book you like…”
The best advice I can give to young people is to find a book you like and immerse yourself in it. Then find another, and another. Your local librarian or school librarian or your teacher, or anyone who’s ever read a good book can lead you, guide you, and help you as you search for the stories that appeal to you. Read what you like, set aside those you don’t.
That’s as it should be. Explore. Discover. Imagine. Share books with others. Reading is like thirst. Every day we need to quench our thirst, gulping good stories and savoring the ideas. Reject the books you don’t like. That’s fine. Embrace the books you do.
AUTHORLINK: We love this advice! How do you feel you have evolved as a fiction writer from your debut historical fiction Copper Sun, a Time Best Y.A. Book of All Time?
DRAPER: When I taught language and writing, I let my students know that writing is a process that includes multiple revisions. Many, many, many changes, improvements, additions, and corrections. I tell young readers who want to be writers that is still my process. There’s always a better word, phrase, description, emotion, detail to include and improve. My books go through 80 or 90 revisions, and that is before I send anything to my editor who revises everything eighty more times. I’m serious.
“Revision is the key to perfection, and it’s a very high mountain to climb.”
Revision is the key to perfection, and it’s a very high mountain to climb. I feel that I’m a better writer than I used to be, and hope to be even better as I write the next book. I am constantly pushing myself to make every single book the best yet. And my editor is tough on me, pushing me to higher standards for every single novel. I strive to write the best book ever. And the next one will be better than that. It’s the mountain I live on. And I love it.
AUTHORLINK: Wow, 80 to 90 revisions? Incredible. Times two? Bravo! Speaking of your writing process, what is your writing schedule like in general?
Who is your first reader?
How often do you edit your manuscript before submitting it to your agent?
Has your process changed over the last few years?
DRAPER: When I’m focused on a new novel, I get up early in the morning, like five or six. I go to bed around midnight. I write all day long. Seriously. I write. I revise. I change. I improve. I rewrite. The next day I do it all again. I take breaks, I walk the dog. I get fresh air. Oh, and I eat ice cream. Macadamia Vanilla Bean. J
My family members are my first readers. My daughter. My husband.
I edit my manuscript hundreds of times before I submit it to my agent. Seriously. Hundreds. Then it is revised again. Hundreds more times before it gets to publication. Even as it is going to printing, it gets more edits.
My process hasn’t changed over the last few years. No, except It has probably gotten more intense.
AUTHORLINK: Ice cream is our favorite writing snack too. As a New York Times bestselling author, the recipient of the 1997 National Teacher of the Year award, and a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for books, you have accomplished so much!
We heard through the grapevine you are working on a book about a library. Is that right? What excellent subject matter to write about, given that local libraries are slowly becoming obsolete. Can you tell us a bit about it?
DRAPER: I made the library and a librarian important in Out of my Heart. A book more centrally focused on a library is still on the table, however. I owe a great debt to Mrs. Johnson at the library on Quincy in Cleveland, Ohio. If I write that book, she will be one of the main characters.
And I hope that libraries never become obsolete. They are the bedrock of society. I suggest everybody read The Library Book by Susan Orlean. It is the BEST book on libraries and is a blessing to libraries and librarians and readers everywhere.
AUTHORLINK: It sounds fascinating. On a final note, in your opinion, can a book change a life? If it does not have a moral or ethical message stitched into its backbone, like your book, Tears of a Tiger (1994) about drinking and driving, is it likely to impact the reader, do you think?
“I let the story and the characters lead me to the conclusion…”
DRAPER: You know, when I wrote Tears of a Tiger, I honestly was not thinking of the moral and ethical message. Honestly. Seriously. I don’t write like that. I write a story. About a character. Swirled with events. Riddled with pain and pathos and even some humor. I let the story and the characters lead me to the conclusion—I rarely know how a book will end. If it ends up with a message that a reader receives, then wonderful. If not, then that’s okay too. I wrote that book because I was teaching teenagers at the time—young people who often act thoughtlessly, who live life as if it will never end.
If I had tried to be moralistic, they would have rejected the book—teens are way too sophisticated to be fooled. I wrote the story through the eyes of a teacher who had lived long enough to know that life is sometimes tragic, and that a good book might be a way to make a young person think about that.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, you’re so right. Ms. Draper, it has been so wonderful chatting with you today! Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your wisdom. We wish you continued success and happiness and look forward to your next book. All best.
DRAPER: Thank you! These were some of the most challenging interview questions I’ve ever had! And I’ve been through some challenging interviews!
You’re good! I appreciate the depth and thought that went into each one. And I enjoyed how thoroughly you made me think about each answer. I offer you my deepest regards.
AUTHORLINK: That is high praise coming from you, Ms. Draper. Thank you!
About the Author: Sharon M. Draper is a professional educator and an accomplished writer and has written 31 books. She has been honored as the National Teacher of the Year, is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Literary Awards, and is a New York Times bestselling author, with Out of my Mind staying on the list for almost three years.
She has been honored at the White House six times and was chosen as one of only four authors in the country to speak at the National Book Festival Gala in Washington, D.C., and to represent the United States in Moscow at their Book Festival.
Her book Copper Sun was named one of the 100 Best Books of All Time by TIME Magazine. It was selected by the U.S. State Department and the International Reading Association as the United States novel for the international reading project called Reading Across Continents.
Her literary recognition began when, as a challenge from one of her students, she entered and won first prize in a literary contest. She was awarded $5000 and the publication of her short story, “One Small Torch.” She has published numerous poems, articles, and short stories in a variety of literary journals. She is the published author of numerous articles, stories, and poems.
She lives in Florida now, north of Daytona Beach with her husband and a golden retriever named, Cookie.
You can find more about Sharon M. Draper at:-https://www.instagram.com/sharonmdraper/