The first book on our reading list for ENG 561: Giving Voice to the Voiceless is Sharon M. Draper’s Out of My Mind, one of the nominees for the 2014 Nutmeg Book Award and high on my mental shortlist for the award. Out of My Mind is the story of a middle-school girl with cerebral palsy, extremely intelligent but unable to speak without the aid of a machine (which she obtains only midway through the story) and unable to complete basic tasks like dressing or feeding herself. Out of My Mind chronicles Melody’s struggle to fit in and to express herself to a world that largely sees only her disability. Extremely intelligent with a photographic memory and synesthesia besides, Melody enters a quiz bowl competition, surpassing her classmates in trials, providing her with the opportunity to show the world her intelligence or at least her ability to comprehend, compete, and retain information. But because her disability makes her classmates uncomfortable, her chance is stolen, and her inability to communicate effectively, swiftly, and without aid leads to further tragedy, which ultimately is resolved happily enough, but was quite a gut punch from Draper to her readers.
Out of My Mind is written in a simple past first person. The book reveals itself at the end to be the work of Melody, written as an autobiography for class.
Out of My Mind falls for me into one of the pitfalls of sports fiction (though I had to laugh a little when I looked over what sports fiction I’ve read): dull and plot-miring over-explanation of a sport that is a catalyst but the understanding of which is not really crucial to the plot. Meg Wolitzer in The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman hangs by her fingertips from this cliff’s edge, but Draper teeters by that same precipice when she lists questions and answers for the quiz bowl in her fiction. Luckily, a quiz bowl question is briefer than a list of 101 two-letter words, and I was more forgiving of Draper, who also seemed to recognize this problem and, as quickly as she could, moved Melody past inserting the questions into the text.
Otherwise, Out of My Mind is a well-written text, employing many tricks of the trade and leaning towards poetic prose without frequently tumbling into a brier of flowery language.
As a story about voice and voicelessness, Out of My Mind is fascinating, with voice and voicelessness oscillating between being voluntary and involuntary, frustrating and a defense mechanism, even for Melody, for whom for all her life prior voicelessness has been the only option.
Melody is prone to bouts of teenage-ness and this helps to make her real. In Melody’s struggle to fit in and be understood by her peers, Melody’s cerebral palsy and voicelessness become another hurdle, but the struggle itself is a standard middle-grade trial, one to which I think we can all, at almost any age, relate, and this too helps to make Melody a relatable and real character.
[SPOILERS] Ultimately, Out of My Mind did not have the ending that I wanted for it. I would have appreciated if it had ended when Melody and her quiz bowl team won the state competition, but Draper saw fit to increase the angst for Melody. Left behind by her quiz bowl team, Melody feels betrayed, and her disability again becomes stark for her just when she had seemed to surmount it, but she refuses to be defeated by her teammates’ perceived cruelty (I genuinely feel that the team while they can be faulted for excluding her from their shared breakfast cannot have hoped to leave Melody behind). She demands to go to school despite poor weather and the fraying health and energy of her parents. In the rain and her distraction, Melody’s mother does not see Melody’s younger sister, and Penny is struck by the car. Though Penny emerges from the accident with a few broken bones but no lasting damage, I felt that Draper’s point about Melody’s difficulties to communicate had already been conveyed, and while this was (almost) the most dramatic of ways in which her inability could be conveyed, it may not have been necessary to the plot, and really only seemed to fill the space (unnecessarily) between Melody’s disappointment and her moment to confront her class while giving Melody a second time to worry that Penny might be “damaged” mentally as Melody is. Angst. [END SPOILER]
Draper, Sharon M. Out of My Mind. New York: Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2010.
This review is not endorsed by Sharon M. Draper, Atheneum Books for Young Readers or Simon & Schuster, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.