Book Review: Out of My Mind

My copy of the book.

We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year … I couldn’t help but think of the Pink Floyd song, “Wish You Were Here,” after reading Sharon Draper’s 2010 YA novel, Out of My Mind. Except in the case of this book, it was one lost soul. The character, Melody, has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair, with a seemingly photographic memory, but the inability to verbalize her thoughts to anyone. As such, she compares her situation to a fish in a fishbowl, and even later in the story, she gets a pet fish named Ollie who flops out of his fishbowl and dies because she’s unable to get her mom’s attention soon enough (foreshadowing for something else later in the book, too). And of course, the cover of the book is that of a fish sailing free of its confinement in the fishbowl. More than wanting to walk (although she certainly wants to dance!), Melody just wants to be able to talk. To tell her parents she loves them.

Draper’s inspiration for the book isn’t from her own experience, but from wanting to tell the story of a kid with disabilities without telling it to make us feel bad for Melody because of her disability. Throughout the novel, Melody experiences situations, such as mean girls, condescending teachers and doctors, and even a new sister — situations any of us can relate to — and where a different book may have encouraged us to feel sorry for Melody, Draper’s intention is show us how strong Melody is on her own merits and her perseverance therein. The book itself takes place in my neck of the woods, Southwestern Ohio. In fact, Draper taught in Cincinnati Public Schools and even at my university, Miami University. Draper acknowledges Stepping Stones and Camp Allyn in the Acknowledgements, both of which are schools around here for students with disabilities.

While the book is a smidge too young for me in terms of the writing and story, I still enjoyed it and found myself laughing out loud quite a few times, mostly at the points where Melody was annoyed with the adults in her life for just not getting it. I also giggled with delight (that’s often how I express my joy and delight) and/or teared up when Melody gets a dog named Butterscotch who understands her, and then later, when technology enables her to speak to her parents akin to Stephen Hawking to finally express her love for them.

Of course, I think it also goes without saying that a child with disabilities ought not be a genius to be taken seriously or “normalized” among her peer groups. Although, even Melody, with her genius brain, as her peers, teachers, and doctors come to learn, is still ostracized. She eventually joins the Whiz Kids team at the local school, with the hopes of propelling them to the Washington D.C. national championship. Instead, the team deliberately leaves her behind and gets ninth place. The jerks.

The book gets dark because of that, and then even darker when Penny, Melody’s baby sister, who was foreshadowed earlier in the book as being “Houdini-like” with the way she escapes from her parents and puts herself in mortal peril outside, does just that. The day after being left behind in Ohio by her “teammates,” Melody is adamant about going to school to prove they didn’t win. Because of rain and such, Melody’s mother is distracted and doesn’t realize that Penny has escaped the house and is approaching their vehicle in the driveway. Just like with Ollie the goldfish, Melody is trying to convey that to her mother, but is unable to. The mother runs over Penny! Thankfully, Penny doesn’t die like Ollie did, but jeez, I didn’t expect the book to take us on an upward trajectory of happiness with Melody throughout the novel only to spike downward with sadness on top of sadness. But again, I suppose it was Draper’s way of showing Melody’s perseverance despite adversity. My only issue with that is I wish at least one of the kids would have been better and more understanding of Melody. The Rose character seemed like that opportunity at first, but it’s basically implied that Rose is taking pity on Melody, and then she fully turns on Melody by not telling her about the earlier flight to D.C. Womp womp.

I should note, too, that local reporters covered Melody’s academic team when they won the competition to then move on to the national competition. I don’t know if Draper intended it or not, but the reporters were engaging in what we would call “inspiration porn” when it came to Melody. You’ve seen those stories before, a classic example of the “inspiration porn” genre is, “This Student With Down Syndrome Went To Prom With Her Best Friend And It Was Magical.” It’s basically fluffy reporting, making the disabled person (and anyone who assists them) seem like an object of curiosity. If you were a reporter covering the academic team’s success … you’d cover the academic team’s success, not focus in on Melody as an object of curiosity. “Wow, they have someone like her on the team.” I don’t think it’s intended to be condescending, but that’s what happens nonetheless.

That digression aside, if you have younger kids who enjoy reading, this would be a good book to introduce to them because if you’ve ever been around little kids, they have no filter! If they see someone who has a disability, they loudly wonder what is wrong with that person. Which it’s fine that they are curious, of course, but I think reading this book would help them understand, especially because it’s likely they’ll go to school with a person with disabilities. And hopefully, your child will be better than Rose.

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