Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010, 320 pages
In Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind, Melody Brooks is eleven years old and has never spoken a word. In her wheelchair, she often meets issues of inaccessibility, but as she tells readers in her first-person narrative, she thinks things could be just a little easier if she could express herself with words. Though she has some very basic tools to communicate about things like needing the bathroom and being hungry, she’s been unable to make many deep connections outside herself due to her cerebral palsy. When a new technology comes into her life, Melody is suddenly able to get more involved than ever before, but there are challenges she perhaps didn’t anticipate that must be met.
There’s no getting away with writing a review for Out of My Mind without mentioning R. J. Palacio’s Wonder. Both telling the story of a child with physical challenges (one more cosmetic than the other), both novels were published within the last seven years. While Out of My Mind appeared in 2010, Wonder came out in 2012. Between the two, Out of My Mind is superior for the simple fact that it does better work in not falling into the trap of being inspiration porn. Melody is angry and not afraid to show it. She is not always kind, she is not always understanding. And it is this that makes her a sympathetic character, paradoxically enough. Where Auggie of Wonder is known for being extra kind (and certainly this is admirable), he is also essentially awarded for having a disability, which boils down to something offensive — people with disabilities are more than their disabilities, and it is exactly Melody’s negative traits that demonstrate this so clearly.
Another success of Out of My Mind is Draper’s refusal to treat ten-year-olds like toddlers. Frequently, Melody’s peers do things that are cruel, even as they know they are wrong for it. Draper makes no excuses here, heightening the realism of the novel, which again further brings home the point. Even adults are not immune to mistreating Melody, though sometimes this happens — as in real life — with good intentions. The discomfort Draper brings out on the page is excellently handled because she does not suppose that this behavior is cartoonish or the result of a lack of realizing the action is wrong. Sometimes, people are just cruel, and where Palacio tip-toes around this concept, Draper takes it head on in a much more effective manner.
There are some shortcomings in Out of My Mind. On top of being a difficult topic, the first half of the narrative is startlingly slow and repetitive. This serves Melody as a character, of course, and readers’ empathy for her — just as Melody’s life has been monotonous and frustrating in part, as a result of her inability to communicate as others do, so is the reading experience prior to her acquisition of communication assistant technology. Too, Melody is said to have a photographic memory, but this trait doesn’t seem to play out in the reality of the story — perhaps this is a miscommunication of what exactly “photographic memory” means in Melody’s case, but she still must drill trivia questions as she prepares for a tournament in a series of study sessions with her neighbor/caretaker.
I can’t outright say that I loved Out of My Mind. Stylistically, I struggled with Draper’s writing and found it to be slogging in many places. There’s no doubt that the novel touches on a difficult and important topic, but this alone does not a great or enjoyable book make. Though certainly a useful story for a classroom, book club, or heart-to-heart discussion, Out of My Mind is not the thing to reach for if you’re looking for a fun, strictly-entertaining read. Still, if you’re between Wonder and Out of My Mind, go with the latter — not only does the book mostly avoid being inspiration porn, but it also was written by a woman of color and touches on life with cerebral palsy in a reflective and no-punches-pulled manner.
❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤