Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

[Originally posted on July 10, 2014 here]

6609765 Out of My Mind
by Sharon Draper

Sigh.

After having numerous friends (mainly parents of children with disabilities) rave about this book, I read it with much anticipation. I kept waiting for it to grab me, but it never really did. It’s safe to assume that I’m in the minority in that I did not love this book.

Written for the preteen/adolescent set, it’s a fictional narrative by an eleven-year old girl by the name of Melody who is profoundly disabled by cerebral palsy.

“Words.

I’m surrounded by thousands of words. Maybe millions.

Cathedral. Mayonnaise. Pomegranate.

Mississippi. Neapolitan. Hippopotamus.

Silky. Terrifying. Iridescent.

Tickle. Sneeze. Wish. Worry.

Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes – each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands.

Deep within me, words pile up in huge drifts. Mountains of phrases and sentences and connected ideas. Clever expressions. Jokes. Love songs . . . .

I have never spoken one single word. I am almost eleven years old.”

Melody is wheelchair bound and not only can she not speak, she cannot feed herself or dress herself or bathe herself. She is unable to use the bathroom by herself. Most people assume because of her physical limitations and absence of speech that she must also have severe mental limitations, and she spends her days in a special ed classroom where a procession of teachers with low expectations parade in and out.

Melody is bored and frustrated. She wants to fit in. She wants to have friends. She wants to say what’s on her mind, but her words are all stuck inside her mind – until she acquires a speech device that finally allows her to express herself. It’s a dream come true – but will it change Melody’s life and people’s perceptions about her in the way she hopes?

I was tempted to call it a “feel good story” until about three-fourths of the way through. Though it’s written for kids in the 9 – 12 age group, I appreciated the fact that it’s not all wrapped up with a pretty bow at the end.

That said, there were several things that bother me about the story: most of the kids that populate the book are downright obnoxious, and it was difficult to like any of them. I suppose this was at least partly intentional on the author’s part in order to create a “Melody vs. The World” dichotomy. There is one girl who sort of befriends Melody, who is clearly conflicted, and she was probably the most likeable and believable character. It felt like the author was unsure of the era in which the story takes place – she has Wiis and iTunes existing alongside MySpace, which as far as I know has been dead for years. While not a major thing, it was a distraction. The kids used “hip” lingo that I’ve never heard (do kids really say, “That’s so tight!” or “That’s what’s up!“? Maybe I’m out of touch – or maybe it’s a geographical thing – none of my kids have ever used those phrases), so that felt unrealistic. The author does not seem to have a grasp of the difference between “inclusion” and “mainstreaming” in the realm of school, and nothing seems to be decided by way of IEPs. Also, aides for disabled students are really awesome and involved and attached, almost members of the family. Yeah, right. Not that there aren’t good aides out there, but I thought the author’s portrayal – especially of Melody’s aide – was a pretty major departure from reality.

Oh! And the classmate with Down syndrome! I’m convinced the author read something with a title like, “Stereotypical Down Syndrome Traits.” Always happy. Hugs indiscriminately. Possesses sixth sense about other people’s moods and emotions. Gag.

What bothered me most of all, however, was the same old valuing of people based on intelligence. Melody, you see, while profoundly physically disabled, is pretty much a genius. Even she says that she hates the word “retard.” I got the distinct feeling it wasn’t because she felt it was mean or derogatory or marginalizing, but rather because she’s not “retarded.” “She may be severely crippled, but at least she’s not retarded!” the author seemed to be saying. I’m so tired of this message – so tired of our society’s insistence on valuing people based on intelligence and potential to achieve, rather than on humanity.

There was also the fact that Melody’s parents, while loving, fierce advocates, seem to have no qualms about expressing – to Melody! – that, yeah, she’s defective, broken, messed up. When her mom is expecting another baby, everyone is worried that the new baby will also have CP. “We love you, Melody, but we sure hope and pray that this new baby isn’t screwed up like you,” they pretty much tell her.

It was frustrating and disheartening.

I can see the pluses of this book for the age group it’s intended for – by allowing kids a glimpse into the mind of a child with disabilities, it might serve to demystify disability to an extent and foster compassion. However, I feel that the positive impact it could have is mostly canceled out by the negative messages about disability. I’m not sure I would even recommend this book to my own kids, who have a sibling with a disability.

[Bracing myself for comments expressing outrage.]