In her 2010 novel Out of My Mind (S&S/Atheneum/Dlouhy), author Sharon Draper introduced readers to Melody Brooks, an 11-year-old girl with cerebral palsy frustrated by the limitations people have placed on her and desperate to communicate her intelligence and wit as she navigates fifth grade. The book has sold more than four million copies and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly four years.
Out of My Mind was widely embraced by students, educators, and parents; Melody’s narrative especially rang true for young readers with cerebral palsy, or who may have other disabilities, and their families. Draper notes that she has a family member who is the inspiration for this book, but that Melody’s story is not a literal interpretation.
“It stunned me with the reception that it received,” Draper said. “Parents told me, ‘Nobody’s ever written about how hard it was to be this mom,’ ” she continued. “Students like Melody wrote to me and said, ‘Thank you for giving me a voice because nobody knew what it was like to be me’ and ‘Thank you for putting me out there so I could be just like everybody else.’ Everybody needs a voice. I gave Melody that voice and it resounded.”
Over the years, as she’s written other books and traveled the world visiting schools, libraries, and conferences, Draper says she’s received thousands of emails “from students, teachers, parents, caregivers wanting to know, ‘So what happened to Melody? What happens next?’ ” Soon readers will find out. On September 28, Caitlyn Dlouhy Books will publish a sequel, Out of My Heart, which chronicles Melody’s experiences at summer camp. The book’s jacket is seen here for the first time.
Despite so many requests to craft an update on Melody, Draper hadn’t really considered a sequel. “I always said, ‘Nope, I’m done, I’m finished,’ ” she said with a laugh. “But we’ve had a year to ponder and think. I’ve been home for a year and I said, I can’t complain that I don’t have enough time to write. I cannot use that as an excuse anymore. I started working on it slowly in bits and pieces, and it grew and developed and—I like it. I’m cautiously optimistic that everybody else will like it too.”
In Out of My Heart, Melody is 12 and “she has basically conquered all the school-related problems that she could conquer,” Draper said. “So, in this book she goes to summer camp. She’s in a completely different environment, away from home for the very first time, without her support group and she’s all alone.” But at the camp, which is designed for children with disabilities, Melody immediately meets a fiercely protective ally in her one-on-one camp counselor Trinity, whom Draper describes as “kind and loving and no-nonsense.” In addition to activities like horseback riding and ziplining (the details of which Draper carefully researched), campers attend a nightly campfire, where Draper said many discussions central to the story take place. Melody makes friends, meets a boy, and her camp stay eventually leads her “to a place where she has to take charge of her own life and make some decisions like a 12-year-old has to learn how to do,” Draper said.
Draper’s editor Caitlyn Dlouhy, v-p and editorial director of her eponymous imprint, was enthusiastic about publishing the sequel in part because she was among those readers who were deeply affected by Melody’s story in Out of My Mind. “When that book came out there were not many books out there that really did the deep dive on what it’s like to be a child with a disability and Sharon didn’t hold any punches,” Dlouhy said. “She went to the heart of things that people don’t think about that are crushing. And once you read about how cruel people can be to other children, or thoughtless because they don’t know any better, that never leaves you. It’s completely changed how I interact with people who have disabilities and how I taught my daughters to interact with people who have disabilities.”
When she first learned that Out of My Heart would finally become a reality, Dlouhy said, “I was ecstatic. I’ve always wondered what would come into Melody’s life next and how would she react to it. It might sound corny, but how Melody reacts to things gives the reader hope and strength. It gives you a much bigger perspective in all sorts of directions.”
Inspiration for the book’s jacket came from “the idea of a firefly being set free from a jar, lighting up as it flies free. It seemed a perfect metaphor for how Melody herself stretches and how her own inner light grows brighter, stronger, as she tackles new experiences at the camp,” Dlouhy said. “She also subsequently sort of lights the way for others at the camp, who are willing to try things they too are nervous about, after they watch Melody.” Dlouhy credits S&S art director Debra Sfetsios-Conover, who designed the book, with introducing the firefly idea and “for thinking also that it made a lovely pairing with Out of My Mind [whose cover features a goldfish leaping out of its bowl].” Lucy Arnold is the firefly artist for the cover image, and Paul Draine is the photographer.
Draper said she loves the new jacket. “They have captured the essence of the story without revealing anything,” she said. “It’s about light and lightness. And you can take from that light and that lightness and that little bug on the cover—you can take all of that and—ooohhh if I were still in the classroom [teaching middle school] I’d make kids write an essay on that.”
As she waits for Out of My Heart to step into the light, Draper says, “I’m excited about this book and terrified because it’s like waiting for your baby to be born. Please let my baby land OK out there some place.” She’s looking forward to being able to travel again and make in-person classroom visits and has booked one event in 2022. Until then, she joked, “I’ll be sitting here because I can’t go anyplace but maybe to Target.”