Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Out of My Mind

Sharon Draper's Out of My Mind is the story of eleven-year-old Melody, born with cerebral palsy and unable to walk, talk, feed herself, or take care of any of her basic needs. Doctors, many teachers, and a host of other adults assume she is incapable of learning, but Melody is highly intelligent and thoughtful, with a mind is full of thoughts she is unable to express and a photographic memory. The book begins:

I’m surrounded by thousands of words. Maybe millions.
Cathedral. Mayonnaise. Pomegranate.
Mississippi. Neapolitan. Hippopotamus.
Silky. Terrifying. Iridescent.
Tickle. Sneeze. Wish. Worry.

Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes—each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands.
Deep within me, words pile up in huge drifts. Mountains of phrases and sentences and connected ideas. Clever expressions. Jokes. Love songs.
From the time I was really little—maybe just a few months old—words were like sweet, liquid gifts, and I drank them like lemonade. I could almost taste them. They made my jumbled thoughts and feelings have substance. My parents have always blanketed me with conversation. They chattered and babbled. They verbalized and vocalized. My father sang to me. My mother whispered her strength into my ear.
Every word my parents spoke to me or about me I absorbed and kept and remembered. All of them.
I have no idea how I untangled the complicated process of words and thought, but it happened quickly and naturally. By the time I was two, all my memories had words, and all my words had meanings.
But only in my head.
I have never spoken one single word. I am almost eleven years old.

Compelling and believable, the novel made me think about the nature of intelligence, the relationship between communication and identity, the assumptions we make about people based on limited information, the meaning of the concept "disabled," the experience of living with diverse impairments and whether it is possible for someone without that experience to understand it, how we know what we know, and the moral dimension of the category "disabled." A great book to read with upper elementary or middle school students.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Long Walk to Water

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, based on true events, tells the dual story of Nya, living in southern Sudan in 2008 and traveling miles every day to bring home water for her family, and Salva, growing up in southern Sudan in the 1980s and, at 11, leaving his village and family to escape the civil war. The story is written simply and the dual narrative structure creates a gripping picture of life in a difficult country and the strengths and skills necessary for survival.

The story raises interesting philosophical questions about the nature of hope and perseverance, allegiance to family and community, and the relationship between a place and the individuals who inhabit it. It's a beautifully told story and will be especially compelling to upper elementary school age students.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Bear That Wasn't

The Bear That Wasn't, written in written in 1946 by Frank Tashlin, explores identity and what we can know about ourselves and others. The bear in the story wakes up after winter hibernation and a factory has been built over the cave where he had slept. He is in the middle of a busy factory, and everyone he meets tells him that he is not a bear, but a "silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat." At first the bear is sure of his own identity, but eventually begins to question whether he is in fact a bear.

How do we know who and what we are? Are there things that only we know about ourselves? Are there things we don't know about ourselves? If everyone tells us something they believe about us, does that make it true?