Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

"Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes--each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands.
Deep within me, words pile up in huge drifts. Mountains of phrases and sentences and connected ideas.  Clever expressions.  Jokes.  Love songs.
From the time I was really little...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...
Every word my parents spoke to me or about me I absorbed and kept and remembered. All of them....
I have never spoken one single word.  I am almost eleven years old.

Out of My Mind did a terrific job of taking me inside the mind of a bright young girl with cerebral palsy and very limited means of communication.  Melody cannot speak or control her most of her movements.  To converse, she needs to point at letters on her communication board with her thumbs, one slow letter at a time.  She cannot eat or drink by herself or use a toilet or bathtub independently. In school she is placed in a special needs class, where for years teachers treat her as though she were intellectually disabled.

While doing some research on Stephen Hawking,  Melody discovers the Medi-talker, a computer/communication device which could give her a voice.  The Medi-talker lets Melody demonstrate what her parents and caregivers had long suspected, that she is easily one of the brightest children in her school.  However, Melody's dream is to actually make friends with the other students and be part of the group of "normal" kids, and her new-found communication skills don't alleviate the other student's discomfort with her physical differences.  To most of her peers, Melody still seems downright strange and sometimes even repulsive. Being seen with her in public embarrasses them.  When Melody competes to be on her school's Whiz Kids team, the other kids are shocked when she gets in.   Being on a school team doesn't lead to the social acceptance that Melody had hoped for, and in a moment of crisis, Melody comes to understand that some people just aren't worth the struggle.

"I'm not trying to be mean--honest--but it just never occurred to me that Melody had thoughts in her head."

Draper is a talented writer and Melody's voice is very believable.  Although I'm not really fond of books that set out to "teach" kids about life, I do like books that can help them empathize with difference.  I think Draper has nailed that here.  Because the truth is, kids like Melody aren't that weird or scary once you get to know them--it's the initial step that's hard.  Draper lets us get to know Melody from a position of relative safety, but I'm betting that once readers get to know her, they won't forget.  And we'll be one step closer to having that inclusive world that  kids all deserve.   

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