Out of My Mind

by Sharon M. Draper (2010)

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Melody Brooks is 11 years old. She has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair for mobility. She views her cerebral palsy with wisdom, telling us “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.  Words are so important to Melody that the book opens with her feelings about them: “Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes – each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands.” Quickly, we realize that although Melody may have significant physical limitations, she is a complex, creative, and honest character, fully realized in this layered novel.

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 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 guide.  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 5th grader.  For example, she gives a hilarious description of the farting sounds her dad makes walking up the stairs. 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.  Eventually, readers learn that she is just like them – a three-dimensional 5th grader learning to deal with friendship, mean girls, 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.

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 resourcefulness. It is an outstanding exemplar of its genre, providing a window into the life and mind of a child most people would find more comfortable to ignore. Upper elementary and middle school students grappling with the realities of tween life will find themselves unexpectedly inspired and empathetic to her plight. 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.