"From the time I was really little -- maybe just a few months old -- words were like sweet, liquid gifts, and I drank them like lemonade. I could almost taste them. They made my jumbled thoughts and feelings have substance. My parents have always blanketed me with conversation. They chattered and babbled...My father sang to me. My mother whispered her strength into my ear...By the time I was two, all my memories had words, and all my words had meanings.
But only in my head.
I have never spoken one single word. I am almost eleven years old."
In her novel, Out Of My Mind, Sharon Draper explores the world of disabilities and how people with significant physical and emotional challenges must navigate a world that often makes assumptions about who they are.
Eleven year old Melody Brooks can't walk or talk but she has a brilliant mind trapped in a body that doesn't work. Melody describes herself as "a girl with dark brown eyes that are full of curiosity. But one of them is slightly out of whack....Her head wobbles a little. Sometimes she drools. She's really tiny for a girl who is age ten and three quarters. Her legs are very thin, probably because they've never been used. Her body tends to move on its own agenda..."
Melody remembers absorbing everything around her when she was very young and especially loving music which she associates with colours; Beethoven is bright blue and smells like fresh paint while jazz is brown and smells like wet dirt. Unfortunately, Melody is unable to tell those around her what she likes and how she feels. She can only grunt and make certain sounds.
"Everybody uses words to express themselves. Except me. And I bet most people don't realize the real power of words. But I do."
While her mother sometimes babied her, Melody's father did not - he read books to her and talked to her about things they saw when they were outside. He spoke to her like he knew she could understand him, and she did. More than he knew. Everything Melody encounters she remembers, whether it's a book she's been read, or telephone numbers she's seen on commercials.
"Here's the thing: I'm ridiculously smart, and I"m pretty sure I have a photographic memory. It's like I have a camera in my head, and if I see or hear something, I click it, and it stays."
Life would have been even more difficult for Melody if it were not for her next door neighbour, Mrs. Violet Valencia, a tall woman with an heart to match her towering height. Melody's mother who works as a nurse, used to work with Mrs. V. When her parents brought her over the first time, Mrs. V announced that Melody would learn at her house. Melody first began to stay Mrs. V's home when she was two years old and quickly learned that Mrs. V gave her no sympathy. She taught her to struggle to learn how to make her body move; to roll, to crawl and even how to fall properly.
When Melody's mother took her to see Dr. Hugely at age five for an assessment she was told that Melody was "brain damaged and profoundly retarded." Her mother insisted Melody is very intelligent but the doctor told her to face her daughter's situation realistically and to place her in an institution. Furious at his lack of compassion, Melody's mother refused and enrolled her at Spaulding Street Elementary School when she turned six.
Initially Melody was excited to go to school because she believed school would feed her mind, hungry for new information. But school is hit and miss. In second and third grade, Melody learns more from the Discovery Channel than from school. After school Melody continued to go to Mrs. V's house and after watching a documentary one day about Stephen Hawking she was able to tell Mrs. V that she needed to learn to read and to communicate with others. Since Melody could use her thumbs, Mrs. V filled her talking board with names and questions she might ask, as well as nouns, verbs and adjectives.
In grade five, Melody has Mrs. Shannon who is keen to see her students learn all they can. Mrs. Shannon takes the special ed class to Mrs. Lovelace's music class so the special ed students can be integrated into regular classes. It is in this class that Melody meets Claire and her friend Molly who make fun of the kids with disabilities. All the special ed kids are paired with regular students and Melody is paired with a girl named Rose. For the first time, Melody also gets a "mobility assistant" named Catherine who helps her to eat, put on her headphones and listen to books, take tests and participate in class.
One day when Rose arrives at class with a new computer, Melody manages to convey to Catherine that this is what she wants - a special computer that will enable her to express herself to those around her. The next day they do some research and learn about a device called the Medi-Talker. When Melody shows Mrs. V the information about the device after school that day, Mrs. V shows Melody's parents and they agree to purchase one, even though it is very expensive. The Medi-Talker arrives just before Christmas allowing Melody the chance to practice with it over the holidays. Melody takes her device, which she has named Elvira to class after the holidays and for the first time she is able to communicate with her classmates.
But the new assistive device allows Melody to also participate more in class, so when Mr. Dimming, her history teachers, decides to have a practice quiz for the Whiz Kids competition, Melody is able to take part. Paula, Claire, Rose and Connor all do very well, but Melody gets perfect on the practice quiz. This annoys Claire and Molly who believe Melody cheated. Despite the doubts of Mr. Dimming and many of Melody's classmates, Melody, with the help of Mrs. V who prepares her, makes the Whiz Kids team. But will they accept her or will they continue to find ways to exclude Melody?
The novel opens with the narrator, eleven year old Melody recounting her life up until the present, providing readers with the necessary back story to events that eventually lead up to the climax of the novel. In fact the story (as we learn at the end of the novel) is her autobiography written for Miss. Gordon's English class. Those events involve Melody's participation in the Whiz Kids tournament and how her classmates, unable to accept her as a teammate, eventually thwart her from participating in the final competition. This crisis which forms part of the climax of the novel and is heartbreaking but is minor in comparison to the accident which leaves Melody's family devastated. Melody's voice is unforgettable, making the reader want to continue to be a part of her life.
Out Of My Mind is a well written piece of realistic fiction that will tug at the heartstrings of readers. Melody is an endearing character: courageous, witty and persistent. Although she is confined to a wheelchair and cannot readily communicate with those around her, Melody is presented as a complex character who has the same desires as her peers; she wants to have friends, share secrets, dress cool and to belong. She gets frustrated at not being able to express all the thoughts she has and angry at the ignorance and insensitivity of some of her teachers and her classmates who judge her based on her appearance. Although Melody's abilities are unusual for someone with cerebral palsy, Draper's portrayal of other special ed characters in the novel is very realistic. Sharon Draper has a daughter with cerebral palsy and her familiarity with the challenges of raising and educating a child with CP definitely comes through in Out Of My Mind.
Her portrayal of the regular students and teachers also feels realistic; there are some well-meaning students while others like Claire and Molly are insensitive and just plain mean. Likewise some teachers like Mrs. Shannon are brilliant, "Watch out, world!" Mrs. Shannon announces when she sees me in the hallway. "Melody is ready to rock, y'all." Others like Mr. Dimming just don't understand at all. " 'Look at it this way," Mr. Dimming told Connor. 'If Melody Brooks can win the first round, then my questions much not be difficult enough!'..."
Out Of My Mind explores themes of acceptance, the meaning of friendship and of identity. Out Of My Mind is a good novel to help young people understand those who are different from themselves and to not assume anything about another person's abilities based on what they see on the outside.The children on the Whiz Kid team don't understand concept of friendship nor do they understand those who are different from themselves. Even after the deliberate decision to not call Melody and her parents to let them know about the change in flight times, it seems Mr. Dimming and the Whiz Kids team still don't understand how they hurt Melody. Instead, they seem more embarrassed that she figured out what they did, making Connor's attempt to give her the plastic trophy seem shallow.
The title is a reference to Melody's state of mind before she gets her Medi-Talker and her supreme boredom over the ridiculous things she is forced to learn at school. She is literally going crazy at having to practice the alphabet. But it is also a reference to how Melody feels after she gets the Medi-Talker which allows her to get words and feelings out of her mind and into the world around her. The book's front cover is a reference to Melody's pet goldfish, Ollie, who one day throws himself out of his fishbowl. Melody wonders if he went "out of his mind" swimming around and around in tiny circles in his small bowl. Ollie is a metaphor for Melody who is also trapped in the fish bowl of her physical disabilities.
There were a few weaknesses in the novel. I wondered why it took so long for Melody to obtain some kind of digital assistive device, especially after Mrs. V established Melody's ability to learn quickly and to communicate with word cards. Some of the social references Draper uses in this novel will be outdated, for example, young people no longer use MySpace but favour Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter. The fact that technology becomes obsolete so quickly is probably a common difficulty with many novels written in our digital age and should not be a deterrent to a book's relevancy.
Even though Out Of My Mind is written for younger readers, those who enjoy realistic fiction will appreciate the strong heroine in this novel and the positive portrayal of people with physical and mental challenges.
Out Of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Toronto: Simon & Schuster Children's Publ. 2010