Friday, April 16, 2010

Stuck inside her own brilliant head

Out of My Mind

Out of My Mind
By Sharon M. Draper
Atheneum, 295 pages
$16.99, ages 10 and up


"I'm surrounded by thousands of words. Maybe millions.

Cathedral. Mayonnaise. Pomegranate.
Mississippi. Neapolitan. Hippopotamus.
Silky. Terrifying. Iridescent.
Tickle. Sneeze. Worry."

"Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes – each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands."

That's the gorgeous and haunting beginning of Out of My Mind, a new middle-grade novel by Sharon M. Draper. It's the theme of almost-11-year-old Melody's life.

Melody is a brilliant girl with cerebral palsy so severe that she can't walk, talk, hold a spoon or a pencil or exert much control over the movements of her body. She is trapped inside her own head.

From the time she was young, she has absorbed everything around her – noises, smells, tastes and music. She adores words and music and associates colors and images with different types of music. Country music – her favorite – makes her think of lemons, not sour lemons, but lemonade or lemon cake icing.

Melody's parents have figured out that she has an active brain confined inside her body, but she's frustrated when she can't communicate to them what she wants or needs. They don't always have an intuitive understanding. For example, she's a tween and wants to wear cute clothes like jeans, but her mom mostly buys her sweats because they're easier to deal with.

They do their best to advocate for her with the school system.  For the first few years of school, Melody is in a special ed class. Once in a while there's a good teacher. But most years the teachers don't have a clue. In third grade, the teacher plays songs like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and is still teaching the letter "B" in February. Melody explodes with frustration one day. She starts screaming and won't stop. There's a satisfying scene where her mom comes in, and hands the teacher $5 and breaks the "Twinkle" CD (to the cheers of the students). Then she tells off the teacher.

Things get both better and worse when Melody and the other kids are mainstreamed. She finds more stimulating academics, cluelessness from a teacher or two, makes her first friend and encounters cruelty from some classmates. One girl says: "I'm not trying to be mean – honest – but it just never occurred to me that Melody had thoughts in her head."

A huge breakthrough occurs when Melody's classroom aide helps her get a talking machine. She begins to speak up for herself and becomes a great addition to the school's Whiz Kids quiz team.

But this is a realistic novel and the challenges of coping with a significant disability don't magically fall away. Without giving away endings, tough things happen in the latter part of the book, but Melody proves she's a tough cookie.

Also of great interest is the heartwarming (and later harrowing) plot thread that follows the birth and developing relationship between Melody and her little sister, Penny.

Out of My Mind is a beautifully written, powerful novel that gives a vivid picture about what it's like to live with two human conditions that others have a hard time understanding – physical disability and intellectual giftedness.

- Rebecca Young

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