Melody Brooks is 11 years old. She has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. She cannot sit up by herself, walk, or talk. Yet her mind is filled with words, feelings, and ideas that she can’t express: “Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes – each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands.” Although Melody may have physical limitations, she is a complex, creative, honest character, fully realized in this layered novel. She tells us her cerebral palsy “limits my body, but not my mind.”
Out of My Mind is acclaimed author Sharon M. Draper’s entry into a budding and rich genre of middle grade books with protagonists who face some sort of disability. In Draper’s hands, Melody is a winning guide for readers. She is inspirational without being cloying because she is drawn so carefully to show her as a real person, not a trope.
Melody is funny and easy to identify with, expressing the normal observations of a bright 5th grader. Regarding her wheelchair: “Pink doesn’t change a thing.” Her diagnosis: “Even though he had been to college for like, a million years, [he] would never be smart enough to see inside of me.” She is full of genuine and nuanced feelings toward the different kids in her school, from the kids in the ridiculously decorated special needs classroom to the “normal” kids in her inclusion classes.
She is whip-smart and competitive, yearning to break out of her silence and show the world all of her complexity. Quoting a mean girl: “It just never occurred to me that Melody had thoughts in her head.” Well, that girl – along with the rest of us – learn just how many thoughts are in there, ready to get out.
Eventually, readers learn that Melody is just like them – a three-dimensional kid learning to deal with friendship, bullies, family, and adult authority figures. She learns who to trust, who to appreciate, and who to put in their place with a pointed remark from her computer-assisted communication device (the Medi-Talker, which she renames “Elvira”).
Melody gets terrific support from her understanding parents, from a new teacher in the hated Room H-5, and especially from the redoubtable caretaker, Mrs. V., who builds Melody’s confidence and inspires her to even higher achievement. When Melody complains that reviewing flash cards for the upcoming Whiz Kids competition will make her sweaty, Mrs. V retorts: “So let’s get stinky!”
Out of My Mind has its sad, emotional moments, also. But it is rich with beautiful prose and chock full of Melody’s energy and drive, her smarts and her resourcefulness. It provides a memorable window into the life and mind of a child most people might find more comfortable to ignore. Upper elementary and middle school students grappling with the realities of tween life will find themselves inspired and empathetic. 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.