Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Draper, Sharon M. Out of My Mind. This book is appropriate for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and up, depending on reading level. This is also an excellent high-low book (4 out of 4!).

I try to tailor my library instruction to suit the needs of every student, and I attempt to differentiate instruction when it is indicated. However, because of my time constraints as a librarian in two large buildings, I know that I fall short on the edges: gifted and special needs. In order to make library lessons relevant for patrons who may not be able to even read a spine label because of visual challenges, patrons who may be at a 2nd grade reading level but at an 8th grade interest level (or 8th graders reading at an 11th grade level), or patrons who I just do not understand because of their inability to express their needs to me, I have to make time-consuming accommodations to my lessons, and I confess that I do not always spend enough time on modifications. Sharon M. Draper seems to understand these types of constraints; if she is not a teacher, she sure knows how to sound like one. Ms. Draper’s new novel Out of My Mind, about a brilliant girl with cerebral palsy who cannot tell the world what she knows, has the authentic voice of someone who understands this issue firsthand; her daughter has cerebral palsy as well. Unsurprisingly, the protagonist’s mother in the novel is a strong advocate for her daughter’s rights, but she only gets in the faces of the bad people; she’s not a raving parent. I am glad that Ms. Draper wrote this obviously personal novel, because more people should reexamine their treatment of people with special needs; sometimes, as in Melody’s case, people can possess unexpected or unknown qualities that shine more brightly because of a disability.

Melody Brooks is almost eleven and she has never spoken a word. Although she is quite brilliant, with a photographic memory and synesthetic sensations that enable her to see colors when listening to music, cerebral palsy excludes her from many activities, including speech. Only in her dreams is Melody a “normal” 5th grader: “I get picked first on the playground for games. I can run so fast . . . I call my friends on the phone, and we talk for hours. I whisper secrets . . . When I wake up in the morning, it’s always sort of a letdown as reality hits me” (51). Melody is bored to tears in her self-contained classroom, but she cannot tell her teachers what she wants and needs, and most of them assume she is incapable of understanding, not simply incapable of communicating. When Melody ponders why her goldfish Ollie suddenly decides to jump out of his bowl, she is actually pondering her own condition: “Maybe he was sick and tired of that bowl . . . Maybe he just couldn’t take it anymore. I feel like that sometimes” (64). When Melody starts inclusion classes, she feels like an object of derision and mockery by her fellow, cold-hearted students. One student, Rose, befriends Melody, but they both learn the challenges and complications of friendship with Melody because of her requirements for intimate assistance in activities most folks take for granted, like eating and using the bathroom, severely curtailing their potential friendship. When Melody investigates ways to allow her to speak à la her hero Stephen Hawking, a whole new world may open up to her. But that world contains problems far more dangerous than the boredom or occasional prejudice she faces currently.

Sharon M. Draper has crafted a superior novel out of the trials of a young woman without a voice to liberate her. Like much of her other fiction focusing on African-American youth, often burdened with the same yoke as Melody— but caused by society, not genetics—Ms. Draper bestows an authentic and engaging voice upon the voiceless, forcing the rest of America to listen to what was previously unheard and potentially distasteful. Ms. Draper’s use of imagery to paint the scene; i.e. when Melody hilariously/tragically describes her self-contained classroom, brings even more life to characters already bubbling under the surface with energy, tension, frustration, and confusion. Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper transcends issues like target age or audience, so I will recommend this morality play to just about everyone I see. It taught me to reexamine my approach to my special education students, and I think it has something to teach to everyone about the way they treat and think about other people with significant differences.

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