Out of My Mind

Sharon M. Draper (2010)

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Melody Brooks is 11 years old. She has cerebral palsy and lives in a wheelchair. As she describes it, “It limits my body, but not my mind.” She cannot sit up by herself. She cannot walk. She cannot talk. Yet her mind is filled with words – feelings and ideas that she can’t express.

Out of My Mind is acclaimed author Sharon M. Draper’s entry into a budding and rich genre of young adult fiction, books with protagonists who are disabled – emotionally, psychologically, mentally, or physically. Some readers may not think they want to spend 300 pages with a character in a wheelchair, but in the hands of Sharon Draper, Melody Brooks becomes a winning and inspiring guide.

Melody is funny and easy to identify with (she describes the farting sounds her Dad makes walking up the stairs). She is full of complex feelings towards the different kids in her school (she hates the decorations and activities she and the Special Needs kids have to put up with). She is whip-smart and competitive (she yearns to be on the Whiz Kids team – even though she needs a ‘mobility assistant’ to get around). Eventually, readers learn that she is just like them – a three-dimensional person with all the same ambivalent feelings and emotions about her family, her peers, and the support people and adult authorities in her life.

Along her journey of self-discovery, Melody must grapple with Molly and Claire, two girls who are not sympathetic to her wheelchair; her first friend, Rose, who must navigate her own tricky tightrope as Melody’s friend; the supportive Catherine, Melody’s mobility assistant; a Mom who goes to bat for her; a History teacher who is not entirely sure of Melody’s gifts; and the redoubtable, resourceful, Mrs. V, who senses the inner potential lurking in Melody and insists on doing everything possible to bring it out (“Sweat stinks? Then let’s get stinky!”).

Out of My Mind has its sad, emotionally raw moments. But it is rich with beautiful prose and chock full of Melody’s energy and drive, her smarts and her resources. It is an outstanding exemplar of its ‘genre’ – it provides a window into the life and mind of a child most people would find more comfortable to ignore. Middle School students grappling with Melody’s challenges and accomplishments will find themselves unexpectedly inspired and sympathetic. They will learn something new about themselves. And they just might be inclined to go over and make friends with the Melodys in their school. That’s how literature opens minds and worlds and possibilities.