Melody is a smart, funny and talented fifth grader. She loves to listen to music, spend time with her family, and learn new things at school. But nobody --- or at least very few people --- knows just how smart and funny she is. That’s because she has cerebral palsy, a condition that leaves her unable to move or speak. She needs help eating and using the toilet, and she can’t bathe or dress herself. But in every other way she’s a typical 11-year-old, and she wants more than anything to let the world know just what --- and how much --- she’s thinking.
Most of the time, Melody feels like a goldfish trapped in a bowl, able to observe the world around her but unable to interact with it. Sometimes she feels like there are so many thoughts and feelings inside her head, just bursting to get out. And sometimes the pressure and frustration get to her so much that she has no choice but to scream, like when she finally loses her patience as her third-grade teacher refuses to teach the special ed kids anything more challenging than the alphabet.
But her school’s eventual decision to mainstream those with disabilities offers its own challenges and opportunities. Melody has to deal with mean children who don’t realize that she can understand every hurtful word they say, that she has feelings and hopes and disappointments just like they do. Fortunately, her teacher is skilled and sensitive and refuses to let the painful comments get out of control. Melody also has the opportunity to make a real friend. But how can she do so when she can’t talk? And how can she know that people really want to be with her out of friendship and not just pity?
One of Melody’s heroes is Stephen W. Hawking, the physicist who has been able to have a successful life and career despite being confined to a wheelchair because of ALS. Melody also spends her days in a wheelchair; if she can get access to a special computer like the one Hawking uses, could she finally show the world what she’s thinking and feeling, and just how smart she’s been all along?
Sharon M. Draper, whose own daughter Wendy has cerebral palsy, clearly takes a sympathetic but not patronizing approach to writing about the disease. Melody is rarely a figure of pity but rather of inspiration; in many ways she is a lucky girl, in that she has unfailingly supportive parents, a good support system at school, and tremendous emotional and intellectual resources of her own. Melody’s life is not an easy one (it’ll take her a long time to recover from a harrowing experience on her school’s quiz team), but readers will have no doubt that she will bounce back and use her creativity and ingenuity to continue getting out of her head --- and into the real world.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 9, 2010