Allison's Book Bag

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

Posted on: August 6, 2014

As a special education teacher, I’m always looking for new novels about students with disabilities. Unfortunately, I’ve read enough disappointing ones that I also feel anxious when I flip to the first page. Out of My Mind pleasantly surprised me. Despite some dull moments and an unexpected ending, the characterization of Melody and all those in her life felt so realistic that I quickly found myself applauding Sharon M. Draper’s contribution to the field of special needs literature.

Melody is the clear star of Out of My Mind. She has cerebral palsy, which can limit one’s ability to see, hear, move, think, and even learn. In Melody’s case, only her physical abilities are impacted. Even so, when you read of how Melody relies of others to help her eat, dress, and even use the bathroom, you might feel sorry for her. And you might think she lacks academic ability. Until Melody defies you with her attitude. First, Melody recognizes how babyish it looks that she needs to be fed. Moreover, she drools. Second, Melody makes clear how when she can’t communicate with someone, she resorts to a tantrum. In which she produces a LOT of noise. At the same time, Melody lets readers know that inside her mind she has a large vocabulary. She knows how to spell, define, and use thousands of words in meaningful sentences. Mentally, Melody is as smart as any of her regular classmates. When she finally gains the ability to verbally communicate through a Medi-Talker, Melody becomes an even stronger force to be reckoned with.

The reaction of Melody’s various caretakers and her classmates is mixed. Her parents and an adult babysitter named Mrs. V believe that Melody is smart. For that reason, her parents refuse the doctor’s advice to keep Melody at home or send her to a special school for the developmentally delayed. Mrs. V goes further, in that she doesn’t give Melody any sympathy. Melody’s toys aren’t straightway handed to her but are placed a few inches away from her, forcing Melody to turn over and to reach if she wanted her toys. And when Melody’s Medi-Talker allows her to compete on the grade-five Whiz Kids team, Mrs. V drills her on the biggest and hardest words to prepare her. How teachers react varies too, whether or not they are in the regular classroom or in the resource room. The best of the latter encourage learning with books on tape, while the worst disbelieve in their students by teaching them one letter per month. Students are even unsure of how to handle Melody, with the best complimenting Melody for her performance on tests while the worst laugh at anyone from the resource room. Having been a teacher in the elementary school system now for almost ten years, I can’t stress enough how accurately Draper has portrayed  teachers and students.

In fact, all of the above is so realistic that I hesitate to even mention any negatives. However, two features stood out enough I felt obliged. The ending most disappointed me. It relied too heavily on coincidences. Also, at times, certain passages dragged, which also lessened the overall positive experience for me. One prime example is when Melody took the quizzes and several pages were dedicated to listing questions and answers.

More and more, I’m finding that the best books are being written by those authors who have direct experience with individuals who have special needs. Draper is no exception. Her daughter has a disability. This no doubt enables her to recognize that individuals with special needs are complex, having more strengths and weaknesses. It also would make her very aware of how supportive or unsupportive caretakers can be. Last, Draper is savvy enough to know that school kids come with all kinds of personalities, some being mean and others being kind. I admire Out of My Mind and now wish to read the rest of Draper’s work.

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