Tuesday, April 13, 2010
I can't remember the last time I was so emotionally overwhelmed by a middle grade novel. Sharon Draper's new novel is the story of Melody, a 10 year old girl with Cerebral Palsy so severe that she can neither speak nor move independently. Trapped inside Melody's uncooperative body is a brilliant mind with a cutting wit.
Melody is relegated to a classroom of special needs kids because she can't communicate what is going on in her head. Her world suddenly opens up when she gets a computer with a voice program that allows her to speak for the first time. Unfortunately, the rest of the school is not ready to accept Melody.
I was silently cheering for Melody while I read this book as I sat at my kitchen table. The conversations she has with her parents and caregivers about being different are gut-wrenching. Melody knows exactly how she is perceived by other kids and adults, including teachers. The conversations between Melody's parents as they contemplate the birth of their second child moved me to tears.
This is more than a book about a girl with special needs. It holds up a mirror for all of us to see how we react to people with disabilities that make us uncomfortable.
I encourage everyone to read this.
Susan Aikens, Kids Book Buyer from Borders Head Office
BOOKLIST, 1/1/10, STAR
What would you do if you could not make yourself known, if you had thoughts you could not speak? That is narrator Melody Brooks's plight:
"By the time I was two, all my memories had words, and all my words had meanings. But only in my head," she writes. "I have never spoken one single word. I am almost eleven years old." This is her story, and also the story of a loving family and their devoted neighbor, who help Melody along on her path to say what she needs to say.
Sharon Draper (Copper Sun; Forged by Fire), who herself has a child with cerebral palsy--though she explicitly states that this is not her daughter's story--inhabits the brilliant, frustrated mind and unresponsive body of this child. This is the kind of book--like Terry Trueman's Stuck in Neutral or Harriet McBryde Johnson's Accidents of Nature--that makes readers aware of their own biases, and of what a great disservice those biases do to human beings whose outer trappings belie an extraordinary intelligence within. Draper's book is distinctive for the way she traces Melody's journey and her attempts to communicate from as far back as she can remember. In often poetic language, Melody describes how early on she "began to recognize noises and smells and tastes. The whump and whoosh of the furnace coming alive each morning.
The tangy odor of heated dust as the house warmed up." The author smoothly structures the book in a way that builds suspense while also creating a fuller picture of Melody's daily life. One chapter discusses obstacles from the medical community. At age five, Mrs. Brooks takes Melody to a doctor who says that Melody is "severely brain-damaged and profoundly retarded." Mrs. Brooks defends Melody's intelligence to him ("She laughs at jokes... right at the punch line") and, in another chapter describing Melody's life at school, stands up to a teacher who also underestimates her daughter's mental acuity.
A turning point occurs during one of Melody's daily after-school stays with next-door neighbor Mrs. Violet Valencia ("Mrs. V"): she and six-year-old Melody happen upon a documentary about Stephen Hawking.
"Melody, if you had to choose, which would you rather be able to do--walk or talk?" asks Mrs. V. "Talk. Talk. Talk," Melody answers, by repeatedly pointing at the word on her communication board. This begins Melody's quest to find the tools to express herself--first with word cards she makes with Mrs. V, then with phrases and, finally, with an electronic Medi-Talker. Melody takes charge of her own education and her means of communication. She thrives in her "inclusion classes" with the mainstream students academically, but is not accepted by them socially.
Even the most compassionate classmate can fall to peer pressure, as Melody learns on the brink of her greatest achievement on the Whiz Kids quiz team. Melody sees clearly the challenges before her, and it is the source of her greatest heartbreak but also her greatest inspiration.
It's impossible to close this book without thinking about the world differently.--Jennifer M. Brown
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
The book launch party was a delightful success. Let's see--where do I start?
The day dawned sunny and warm after weeks of rainy, dreary weather. Our color scheme was pale blue and orange, of course, and so loads of helium balloons decorated the outside of the building and along the halls of the school as well. We had it at Walnut Hills High School where I taught for 20 years, and LOTS of my former students came. One drove all the way from Chicago. I guess we had about 250 in attendance.
When people arrived, they were given name tags (because I can't remember anybody's name!) and they signed the guest book. Then they registered for door prizes.
The program began with a children's choir, carrying lighted candles, (battery) walking into the darkened auditorium. They sand "This Little Light of Mine." Then we had an invocation and I came out, dressed in a white suit--of course--with an orange scarf to keep with our color scheme. I gave a welcome and introduced the book, read a couple of selected passages, then I showed the first video, which focuses on words and the power of language. It's only 2 minutes long, so it is powerful and pointed.
Then I read some more, (the part about Ollie) and a couple of passages about the people who helped Melody, like Mrs. V and Mrs. Lovelace. That was followed by a group of disabled young people who do sign language to songs. The music was Josh Groban's "You Lift Me Up," and they were phenomenal. People wept.
I read then the passage about how Melody wished she could fly. A former student sang, in a deep contralto, "I Believe I can Fly." It was a wonderful solo. The next passage I read was how Melody dreams, and what she dreams of. That was followed by my daughter Crystal who did a beautifully moving dance to the song "I Dream in Color." She did half the dance in/ with a wheelchair, and half out of the chair in an expressive, powerful piece. She got a standing ovation.
After that, I read one more passage, about Melody's hopes for her life, then showed the last two-minute video, which is set to the music of Louis Armstrong's "What Wonderful World." We ended with a poem I wrote in which the whole audience stands and joins hands and celebrates life. It was just plain awesome. It went off without a hitch.
After that, everyone filed out to the atrium of the building, a new section that is glass-enclosed and really lovely, where we had the reception. We had a guy playing piano. We served blue punch, orange punch, a cake decorated with the cover of the book. Blue candy, orange candy, fresh fruit, and of course, goldfish crackers.
The door prizes? Live goldfish in bowls. I had 2 dozen of them. The children LOVED that.
I signed books for a couple of hours, greeted old friends and new, and left there exhausted. It is a glorious day.
Here are a few pix.