Book Recommendation: Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper

The Author

Sharon Draper is an American author and teacher who writes books for children and teenagers. She often tackles difficult or challenging topics in her writing (for example, this book is about the discrimination faced by a child with a disability, and another of her books deals with the violent racism faced by African-American families in 1932), but does so through compelling stories rather than lecturing to the reader.

Draper’s extremely comprehensive website is here, and includes all sorts of resources which would be useful for teachers reading her books with their students.

The Book

Out of My Mind tells the story of eleven-year old Melody, an extremely intelligent child who happens to be non-verbal and wheelchair bound. She has cerebral palsy and when she was very young, doctors told her parents that she was profoundly intellectually disabled. Fortunately, there are people in Melody’s life – her family; her neighbour, Mrs V; certain teachers – who can see that there is a lot going on in this little girl’s head if you can only see past her physical difficulties. With communication boards and an electronic talking device, Melody gradually becomes more and more able to interact with the outside world, including the teachers and students at the mainstream school she attends.

In fact, with Melody’s improved ability to communicate, she is able to join her school’s team in a competitive trivia contest, and gets an opportunity to travel interstate to take part in the finals. Not everything goes to plan, but Melody’s reactions to events as they unfold are achingly well-written and one scene in particular is breathtakingly satisfying.

Why I Love It

This is a beautiful book. It’s a not a feel-good, chirpy story about a sweet disabled child who conquers the world – it’s far more realistic than that. There are times when Melody is as contrary, sulky, and stubborn as any child, and there are times when her mother utterly loses her cool. There are even times when Melody gets so frustrated with her inability to communicate that she has what she calls ‘tornado explosions’:

Nobody gets it. Nobody. Drives me crazy.

So every once in a while I really lose control. I mean really. My arms and legs get all tight and lash out like tree limbs in a storm. Even my face draws up. I sometimes can’t breathe real well when this happens, but I have to because I need to screech and scream and jerk.

– Out of My Mind, p15

Many things are tough for Melody, and making friends with the other kids at her school is one of the toughest. I love the way she learns some hard lessons (as do they), and there is a chapter in the book that I occasionally re-read just to cheer her on as she confronts inequity. Reading this book makes me feel like Draper must personally know someone who confronts the issues that Melody faces – either that, or she has done a superlative job of researching what it’s like to be a person with a disability.

Out of My Mind is very reminiscent of R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, and highly recommended for anyone who enjoyed that book.

Where To Get It

Out of My Mind is fairly widely available, and there are multiple copies on the shelf in my local library system. However, I knew from the beginning that this was one I wanted for myself, so I purchased this version from Book Depository.

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Book Recommendation: Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

The Author

Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879 – 1958) was an interesting woman with a passion for writing, education, and social justice.  She had a particular interest in Montessori education, and that shows up clearly in Understood Betsy, which is (to date) the only work of hers which I have read.  Finding Fisher’s works in hard copy can be difficult, which is the only reason I haven’t followed up my enjoyment of Understood Betsy by trying out more of her writing.

You can find out more about Fisher from her Wikipedia biography.

The Book

Understood Betsy was written in 1917.  It’s a children’s book and tells the story of a little girl who is orphaned as a baby and being raised by her Aunt Harriet and Cousin Frances.  These two women are extremely well-intentioned and love young Elizabeth dearly, but Frances in particular creates problems for the child by ‘understanding’ her so much that she exacerbates minor issues like a bad dream or seeing a big dog while out on a walk.

When Elizabeth is nine years old, Aunt Harriet falls ill, and on doctor’s orders is sent to live in a warmer place, with Cousin Frances to look after her.  Poor Elizabeth is shipped off to ‘the Putney cousins’ – relatives who had originally offered to take her as a baby, and who Harriet and Frances have disparaged in her hearing for years.  The Putneys are a no-nonsense farming family, consisting of Aunt Abigail, Uncle Henry, and Cousin Anne, and life for Elizabeth (promptly rechristened Betsy by the informal Putneys) is soon very, very different.

Why I Love It

I do love a good, old-fashioned children’s book – the kind with extraordinary amounts of tasty-sounding food, children charging independently through the countryside, and a depiction of a simple way of life which may never have existed in reality – and Understood Betsy is a great example of this.  There’s definitely a moral to the story (it’s not hard to tell which method of child-rearing Fisher supports!), but it’s not too heavy-handed for a book of this period, and you get a good sense of the characters as individuals.  Cousin Anne is a delight, and it’s sweet to see how her relationship with Elizabeth/Betsy changes over time.

I’m not sure how many modern children would love this book as the pace might be a bit slow, but any child who enjoys books like Anne of Green Gables should be fine with the gentle meandering of Understood Betsy.  For myself, the slow pace and uncomplicated plot is what makes this book a recurrent favourite.  This is one of those books I reach for when I’m tired, stressed, and in need of something easy and comfortable.

Where To Get It

Sadly, my local library system (which allows me to request books from any library in my state) doesn’t have a copy of Understood Betsy, or any other works by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.  It is possible to buy a copy, though – there’s a nice paperback version for sale through Book Depository which is on my ‘To Buy’ list.  The only reason it hasn’t made it to the top yet is that I do already own this book as an audiobook and an ebook!

My first exposure to Understood Betsy came when I stumbled across it on Librivox, which (if you haven’t had the pleasure) is a fantastic site which provides free public domain audiobooks read by volunteers.  I listened to this version, and enjoyed it very much.

I also now have a copy of Understood Betsy as an ebook, downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg (another great source of free public domain books); the direct link to Understood Betsy is here.

Book Recommendation: The Search, by Nora Roberts

The Author

Nora Roberts is one of my favourite authors.  I don’t love everything she writes (Year One, I’m looking at you), and I find her earliest works to be fairly bland, generic romances – but in the last 15-20 years, she has produced an incredible number of novels, many of which have found a permanent place on my shelves.  She is an author I turn to when I feel like something light and easy to read, with enough of a plot to hold my attention, and a guaranteed happy ending.  Most of Roberts’ books have some sort of mystery intertwined with the romance, some have supernatural elements, and almost all of them have characters with interesting professions which are well-researched and integrated into the plot in realistic ways.

The Book

The Search, published in 2010, tells the story of dog-trainer Fiona Bristow and artisan furniture maker Simon Doyle.  Both live in a small island community, and meet when Simon brings his new puppy, Jaws, to Fiona for training.  Though close to others in the community, Fiona is a very private person who lives alone with her three Labradors (Newman, Peck, and Bogart), and chooses not to discuss the fact that several years ago she was the survivor of a terrible crime.

Of course, being a romance, Simon and Fiona begin spending more time together, and Fiona soon talks him into considering Jaws as a candidate for the canine search and rescue squad she coordinates on a volunteer basis.  Being a Nora Roberts book, with a side-helping of mystery and suspense, it’s not long before Fiona’s past rears its head as well, with new victims beginning to appear despite the perpetrator who attacked her eight years ago being securely imprisoned.  It seems that there’s a copycat on the loose, and there’s every reason to believe that eventually he will head for Fiona, to finish what his idol started.

Why I Love It

The Search is one of my all-time favourite Nora Roberts books, for a number of reasons.  As a dog lover, I really enjoy the way the canine characters in this book are written, and the way the human characters live with and love their pets rings very true to life.  For example, right at the start of the book, there’s a scene where Fiona goes out with one of her dogs to help find a missing toddler.  She’s successful, and brings the little guy out of the woods to his terrified parents.  The father desperately tries to hold it together, but when he’s invited to meet the dog who led Fiona to his son, he breaks down and weeps on the dog’s neck.  The dogs aren’t part of this book as window dressing; they’re integral to the plot, and they’re written very well.  As a bonus, for anyone who is wary of stories where an heroic dog sacrifices him-or-herself to save their beloved human, all of the canine characters in this one make it safely to the end!

Another thing I love about The Search is the level of detail it includes on Fiona’s work as a dog trainer, and her volunteer work in canine search and rescue.  This is a feature of many of Nora Roberts’ books: many of her characters have interesting professions, and she clearly puts considerable time into getting the details of those professions right.  There are no information dumps for the sake of showing off research, but I came away from this book with a new-found interest in canine search and rescue.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I really liked the human protagonists in this book.  Fiona is a tough woman who has fought hard to make a life for herself after a traumatic past.  She has friends and family who are a close and active part of her life (something that can often be missing in romance novels), and a career she loves.  Simon isn’t quite as thoroughly fleshed out as Fiona, but he is a charming combination of no-nonsense gruff on the outside, and considerate and sweet on the inside.  There aren’t a lot of sweet words from Simon, but when someone needs him, he’s always there.

Where To Get It

Nora Roberts is a big name, so it should be fairly simple to access a copy of The Search through your local library system.  This is a repeat read for me, so I purchased my own copy from Book Depository, and pull it off my shelf when I’m in need of an easy, uncomplicated read.