Out of My Mind
by Sharon M. Draper
What would you do if you could not make yourself known, if you had thoughts you could not speak? That is narrator Melody Brooks’s plight: “By the time I was two, all my memories had words, and all my words had meanings. But only in my head,” she writes. “I have never spoken one single word. I am almost eleven years old.” This is her story, and also the story of a loving family and their devoted neighbor, who help Melody along on her path to say what she needs to say.
Sharon Draper (Forged by Fire), who has a child with cerebral palsy—but who explicitly states that this is not her daughter’s story—inhabits the brilliant, frustrated mind and unresponsive body of this nearly 11-year-old child. It’s the kind of book—like Terry Trueman’s Stuck in Neutral or Harriet McBryde Johnson’s Accidents of Nature—that makes readers aware of their own biases, and of what a great disservice those biases do to human beings whose outer trappings belie an extraordinary intelligence within. As Draper traces the heroine’s journey and her attempts to communicate from as far back as Melody can remember, she also demonstrates Melody’s sense of humor and her ability to imagine how others see her: “When people look at me, I guess they see a little girl with short, dark, curly hair strapped into a pink wheelchair. By the way, there is nothing cute about a pink wheelchair. Pink doesn’t change a thing.” The author smoothly structures the book in a way that builds suspense while also creating a fuller picture of Melody’s daily life. Melody’s mother overcomes obstacles from the medical community, and stands up to a teacher who also underestimates her daughter’s mental acuity. A turning point occurs during one of Melody’s daily after-school stays with next-door neighbor Mrs. V, when she and a six-year-old Melody happen upon a documentary about Stephen Hawking. “Melody, if you had to choose, which would you rather be able to do—walk or talk?” Mrs. V asks. “Talk. Talk. Talk,” Melody answers, by repeatedly pointing at the word on her communication board. This begins Melody’s quest to find the tools to express herself—first with a wealth of word cards she makes with Mrs. V, then with phrases, and finally with an electronic Medi-Talker. Melody takes charge of her own education and her means of communication. She thrives in her “inclusion classes” with the mainstream students academically, but is not accepted by them socially. Even the most compassionate classmate can fall to peer pressure, as Melody learns on the brink of her greatest achievement on the Whiz Kids quiz team. Melody sees clearly the challenges before her, and it is the source of her greatest heartbreak but also her greatest inspiration. It’s impossible to close this book without thinking about the world differently.