I wanted to love this book.
I was introduced to “Out of My Mind” by fourth-graders at McKinley Elementary School in Ottawa, Ill. During a round of questions and answers, they asked me to name my favorite books, then shared their own favorites. Several students recommended Sharon Draper’s novel because their teacher was reading it aloud in class and they were enjoying it.
I promised the class I would add the title to my to-read list. So when I saw the book on display during a weekend visit to Barnes & Noble, I grabbed a copy. I got around to reading it this past week. My thoughts are below.
Melody Brooks is a fifth-grader who longs to be able to talk to her classmates. It’s not that she’s too shy — the eleven-year-old has cerebral palsy and is unable to speak her thoughts. She lives her life strapped in her wheelchair to avoid falling out when her legs or arms spasm, and sometimes she can’t control the drool that dribbles from her mouth.
Despite her inability to control her body, Melody’s mind is perfect. She has a photographic memory and can memorize any fact shared with her. She has synesthesia, or the ability to see colors when hearing music. She longs to have a voice and speak her thoughts, but no one ever knows what she’s thinking.
That is, until her classroom aide does some research and discovers the Medi-Talker, a machine that will allow Melody to communicate with her family and classmates. Once she’s able to express herself, she tries out for the school quiz team to put her knowledge to good use.
Unfortunately, being able to speak her mind is only the first step of an uphill battle to be accepted by her peers.
My Thoughts (contains spoilers)
This book is a classic example of the importance of showing and not telling. I nearly gave up on the book in the first 90 pages. The first ten chapters largely consist of Melody narrating her family’s backstory and explaining multiple times why she’s frustrated at not being like everyone else.
The two-page first chapter is beautifully written. It’s poetic in its prose, musing about the power of words. It ends with a grabbing line that hooks the reader: “I have never spoken one single word. I am almost eleven years old.” We’re left asking, “Why has she never spoken?” And so we turn the page.
Then begins the exposition, in which very little action occurs during the next nine chapters. There are dozens upon dozens of anecdotes featuring bits of dialogue and actions, but they’re framed by Melody overexplaining them and analyzing them and telling the reader why they’re important.
The first ten chapters essentially function to paint the picture of Melody’s life with cerebral palsy. She tells about her infancy, and early childhood, and a visit to a doctor. She tells about every teacher from kindergarten to fourth grade and then describes every student in her special education class. Another chapter is devoted to describing her next-door neighbor, Mrs. V.
Seventy pages into the book, her baby sister is born when Melody is eight years old. This came as a surprise to me — first, because by chapter nine, she was only eight years old. At the end of chapter one, she mentioned being almost eleven, which seemed to set the stage for the story to tell us about her fifth-grade year, but I was still slogging through backstory trying to catch up to Melody’s current age. Second, it seemed odd to be introduced to everyone else in her life — her classmates, her string of lousy teachers, the neighbor — and then suddenly find out the story’s family dynamic was completely different because there was a baby sister in the picture. Sure, the story is chronological up to this point, but I was starting to feel like it was losing focus.
There is an explanation for this, if you read between the lines. The closing chapter explains that the book was written as Melody’s autobiography project for English class. It makes sense that a student would ramble with backstory. But to read between those lines, first you have to make it to the last page. Those early chapters risk losing readers.
But I stuck it out for the next twenty pages, and I’m glad I did. Because once you make it to chapter eleven, the story really begins.
“Fifth grade started a few weeks ago, and a couple of cool things happened,” the chapter begins. Aha! So we’ve finally caught up to Melody’s age. This is the chapter in which Melody gets to attend “inclusion classes,” which are certain class periods that allow her to leave the special education room and join “normal” classmates.
Over the course of the next few chapters, Melody joins the regular history class. Mr. Dimming is the history teacher and coach of the Whiz Kid quiz team. When he gives a practice test in class, Melody gets a perfect score. He chalks it up as a fluke and insults her in front of the other students, saying, “If Melody Brooks can win the first round, then my questions must not be difficult enough!” Her classmates accuse her classroom aide, Catherine, of giving her the correct answers.
Melody is heartbroken and bitter that people assume her mind is dysfunctional just because her body is different than theirs. She sulks over the day, but her family, Catherine, and her neighbor Mrs. V encourage her to try out for the quiz team. So she studies daily with Mrs. V and Catherine, and when the tryouts come around, Melody shows up, much to her classmates’ surprise and, in some cases, dismay.
She makes the team, but she doesn’t feel included. When they go to their regional tournament, they win. That means the group gets the chance to head to Washington, D.C., to play for the national title. Despite Melody’s contributions to the team, the other students are still uncomfortable around her and don’t fully include her.
At this point, I expected the story to go something like this: The kids go to D.C., Melody comes through for them, they accept her as one of them, and Melody finally has friends and everything turns out swell.
Except that’s not even close to what happens. And it makes me appreciate Sharon Draper as a storyteller.
The national competition was scheduled for 7 p.m. on a Saturday evening in March. All of the teammates went out for breakfast together without Melody, then arrived early for their flight. They were scheduled for a noon departure, but it turned out the noon flight was being canceled due to bad weather in D.C. The airline bumped the team up to an earlier flight and got them to D.C.
No one told Melody’s family about the cancellation. When they arrive at the airport for the noon flight, they’re turned away. There’s no way to get to the competition in time. The whole family is outraged and heartbroken, and they return home. The team loses without Melody.
This is the climax of the book, and I was outraged and hurt right there with Melody. I was really caught up in the story through this point, but there’s a scene in which Melody’s little sister gets bumped by the car while her mom is backing out of the driveway, and that steals the show from Melody’s dilemma. It seemed like an attempt at a second high-emotion climax, and it actually killed the momentum of the story for me.
I was more interested in finding out what happened when Melody returned to school and faced her classmates, and instead the readers are yanked back into a scene of Melody reflecting on how frustrating it is that she can’t talk. She saw her sister run out of the house and behind the car, but she couldn’t warn her mother because she was strapped into the car and didn’t have her Medi-Talker to type out what was happening.
Yes, yes, we know. The entire first half of the book explained that Melody can’t communicate easily. The scene of the sister getting hit by the car robs the emotional impact of Melody’s situation with her team excluding her from the team breakfast and then abandoning her by not telling her the flight was canceled.
Despite the lack of action early in the book and the crippled climax, I still give “Out of My Mind” a solid three out of five stars on Goodreads. My three-star reviews mean I like the book and think it’s solid, although it’s not a favorite and probably not one I’ll read again.
The merit of this book is that it’s important for young readers (and in many cases, older readers, too) to get the perspective of those who are different than them. It’s good for readers to empathize when Melody’s sense of exclusion and to relate to the person beyond the disability. It’s a book that might make a student re-evaluate treatment toward a fellow student.
As I read the book, I was reminded of a student at my high school. Like Melody, she had cerebral palsy. I didn’t know her well and didn’t cross paths with her often, but my sharpest memory of her was from Halloween my senior year.
It was before school, and most of the student body was gathered in the commons waiting for the bell to ring. She was walking into the building with crutches when she slipped and fell. Many of us saw, but not a single student got up to help her. Myself included, much to my shame. A fellow senior sitting near me said loudly, “What did Gloria dress up as for Halloween? Oh, a retard!”
By this point, a teacher was helping her up. Students all around were laughing. I picked up my books and went to my favorite teacher’s classroom to avoid the scene. I was angry at my classmate for mocking her, but also ashamed at myself for not helping her up and not defending her.
I wish this book had been around when I was in elementary school and junior high. I wish it had been read aloud to my classmates. I wish I had more empathy and understanding toward students with disabilities.
That’s the kind of world this book will help build — one of inclusion and understanding, one reader at a time.
- Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper, 2010, Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 295 pages, readers age 10 and older (recommended for fifth through eighth grade). $8.99 paperback