“Out of My Mind” by Sharon M. Draper

01 Sep


Sharon Draper's middle school novel, "Out of My Mind," reads like a younger, more hopeful version of Terry Trueman's groundbreaking "Stuck in Neutral." In this book, fifth grader Melody has cerebral palsy, which has mostly rendered her body useless. Although she retains full movement of her thumbs, Melody has a form of quadriplegia that requires her to use a wheelchair; be fed, put on the toilet, and bathed by an assistant; and which makes speech nearly impossible. Melody's parents have always believed that there's an intelligent, capable mind beneath that limited exterior, but her elementary school has kept Melody in a special ed room where — except for one great teacher — she is left mostly ignored and uneducated. The true shame here? Melody is whip smart, with a nearly photographic memory and a thirst for knowledge. She just has no way of fully letting the world know everything that's going on in her mind.

Yes, Melody can communicate in a rudimentary fashion by using her thumb to point to words on her wheelchair's tray. But this crude, imprecise method often frustrates both Melody and those around her. Kindhearted neighbor Mrs. V, who babysits Melody and her toddler sister Penny, challenges Melody by exposing her to a range of music, new ideas, and vocabulary flash cards, while new school aide, Catherine, a college student, also strives to push Melody further. Yet, despite their efforts, Melody still cannot fully participate in life around her.

All that changes when Catherine, Mrs. V, and her parents help Melody obtain a communication device. When Melody is connected to her Medi-Talker, she can use her thumbs to create whole sentences and ideas. At long last, Melody can express herself, and she's just about bursting forth with the desire to share and participate. In her inclusion history class, Melody can finally display some of her smarts by entering a multiple choice trivia quiz. At first, her classmates — and, unbelievably, even her teacher — think Melody must be cheating by having Catherine change or provide her answers. When Melody again takes the trivia quiz challenge, alone, she scores the highest in two grades and makes the team.

From there, Melody sees her tentative friendship with able-bodied classmate Rose develop, while two other classmates and team members, Claire and Molly, overtly mock her at every opportunity. Because Melody narrates her story, we see her fears at joining the quiz team — both academically and socially — as well as her frustrations with the limitations of her body (she drools, spills things, sweats, etc.). Draper perfectly captures the angst of middle school, with all the petty slights and cravings for acceptance, all of which are amped up for Melody because of her disability. So while bratty Claire can throw up at a team dinner and survive with her popularity intact, the fact that Melody's mom has to feed her mac and cheese freaks everyone out and becomes a lasting source of shame.

Joining the team gives Melody her first real sense of freedom, of belonging, and it's intoxicating for the reader to experience that as well. Again, Draper expertly conveys Melody's voice here. Later, when Melody's teammates betray her in an almost unimaginable way, Melody's heartbreak is incredibly real and painfully shared by the reader.

In fact, what I LOVED above everything here was the unflinching realism in Draper's portrayal of characters and events. The author never shies away from showing us the ugliness (or, more often, the weakness) of folks of all ages who really should know better. But she also gives us small kindnesses and momentary victories. Melody is brave and fragile at the same time, smart, shy, bold, scared … she is an incredibly rounded, believable character. I was absolutely blown away by the big quiz team finale in Washington DC; Draper avoids the pat "overcoming obstacles and winning" climax and instead gives us something so much more authentic and compelling.

Read this book for the wonderful characterizations, the precise narrative voice, and the absolutely beautiful use of language and metaphor throughout. I think "Out of My Mind" is a must read for teachers, librarians, students, parents — really anyone — who wants to better understand how challenging and fulfilling life can be for a child with a severe disability. This lovely, hopeful book will provoke lots of discussion and maybe, just maybe, open some minds and hearts as well.

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Posted by on September 1, 2010 in Uncategorized


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