Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes — each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands. Words were like sweet, liquid gifts, and I drank them like lemonade. I could almost taste them.
So speaks eleven-year-old Melody, whose very name sounds like a song. Melody's fiercely independent spirit, forever frustrated by her totally dependent body, uses words like weapons to fight her daily battles.
In my newest novel, Out of My Mind, I have created a character who speaks for all of us, even though she cannot say a word. Melody has cerebral palsy, but she dares anyone to feel sorry for her. She understands her limitations, yet strives each day to reach beyond those limits. She can't walk, can't talk, can't even go to the bathroom by herself. Yet she has a brilliant mind, a photographic memory, and dreams and desires of any child her age.
Throughout the novel, I tried to show the power of language, and the deep, rhythmic heartbeat of words in our lives. Everybody uses words to express themselves. Except me. And I bet most people don't realize the real power of words. But I do. Thoughts need words. Words need a voice. I love the smell of my mother's hair and the feel of the scratchy stubble on my father's face. But I've never been able to tell them.
How frustrating to live one's whole life without any means of communicating. How would you cope? Although Melody is fictional, thousands of people live her situation in real life. They too, simply want dignity, understanding, and a means to let others know what's on their mind. They want to be respected as individuals, not as representatives of a group, or a physical condition.
As Melody struggles to communicate in a meaningful way to those around her, she learns and grows and develops into a young lady with sense as well as sensibility. The reader is compelled to sit in her wheelchair with her, to see normal activities from a distance, to find strength in her courage.
When Melody starts school, she realizes that her physical as well as her social problems, are superseded by her inability to make her wants and needs known. Once I started school, however, I discovered I had a much bigger problem than just falling out of my chair. I needed words. How was I supposed to learn anything if I couldn't talk? How was I supposed to answer questions? Or ask questions?
I knew a lot of words, but I couldn't read a book. I had a million thoughts in my head, but I couldn't share them with anybody. On top of that, people didn't really expect the kids in H-5 to learn much anyway. It was driving me crazy!... It's like I live in a cage with no door and no key. And I have no way to tell someone how to get me out.
One of Melody's inner releases from the frustrations of her life is her love of music, and how she truly absorbs it into her spirit. She is gifted with synesthesia, the ability to "hear" colors, and "taste" music. The artistic side of her shows a deep understanding of the necessary mingling of art and music to create words and images and ideas. Melody's love for music helps her, even soothes her when her life gets too overwhelming. Music gives her expression in a world where she is unable to express almost everything.
And music. Songs floated through me and stayed. Lullabies, mixed with the soft smells of bedtime, slept with me. Harmonies made me smile. It's like I've always had a painted musical soundtrack playing background to my life. I can almost hear colors and smell images when music is played. Mom loves classical. Big, booming Beethoven symphonies blast from her CD player all day long. Those pieces always seem to be bright blue as I listen, and they smell like fresh paint. Dad is partial to jazz, and every chance he gets he winks at me, takes out Mom's Mozart disc, then pops in a CD of Miles Davis or Woody Herman. Jazz to me sounds brown and tan and it smells like wet dirt. Country music is lemons — not sour, but sugar sweet and tangy. Lemon cake icing, cool, fresh lemonade!
When she goes to the doctor for a mental/social/educational evaluation, she longs to explain the power of music as a backdrop to her dreams, but the doctor never even thinks to ask about music. I knew the words and melodies of hundreds of songs — a symphony exploding inside my head with no one to hear it but me.
So she dreams, and her visions are always in color, decorated with flavor and flair. I dreamed of chocolate clouds all night. Her spirit is artistic and full of creativity. What power might be unleashed if she were able to express it all! All she has are her inner visions and dreams. If I had a paintbrush... wow! What a painting that would be!
Melody longs to be like other children — to run and play and giggle. But when asked if she could choose between walking and talking, she pounds on her communication board, "Talk! Talk! Talk!" But at night, when the silence is loudest, she dreams of a world that works.
When I sleep, I dream. And in my dreams I can do anything. I get picked first on the playground for games. I can run so fast! I take gymnastics, and I never fall off the balance beam. I know how to square dance, and I'm good at it. I call my friends on the phone and we talk for hours. I whisper secrets. I sing.
When I wake up in the morning, it's always sort of a letdown as reality hits me. I have to be fed and dressed so I can spend another long day in the happy-face room at Spaulding Street School.
Melody's story embraces us, lifts us, and makes us thankful for every step we take, for every word we speak. I think all great stories emerge from deep truths that rest within us, truths that can resound in the minds of others. But the real meaning of a story often can be found in places that not even the author has dared to explore. And sometimes readers can discover some truths about themselves as well.
This novel speaks for those who cannot speak. And I hope that it reminds readers of the spirit and passion and humanity in us all.
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Sharon Draper is a two-time Coretta Scott King Award-winning author, most recently for Copper Sun, and previously for Forged by Fire. She's also the recipient of the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Author Award for New Talent for Tears of a Tiger and the Coretta Scott King Author Honor for The Battle of Jericho and November Blues. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she taught high school English for 25 years. For more information, visit her online at www.sharondraper.com.
Books mentioned in this post
Sharon Draper is the author of Out of My Mind