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: If This is a Woman, by Sarah Helm

The Author

Sarah Helm is a British author who wrote a book on Vera Atkins (who worked for Britain’s secret service in and after World War II), and in the process stumbled across references to a Nazi concentration camp for women, called Ravensbruck. She writes incredibly detailed, well-researched non-fiction which includes a plethora of historical sources and interviews with survivors. Her subject matter certainly isn’t light and fluffy, but it’s definitely fascinating.

The Book

If This is a Woman: Inside Ravensbruck, Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women is a comprehensive (823 pages) look at how the story of this camp and its inhabitants unfolded over the course of World War II. Ravensbruck’s function shifted over time, as did the composition of the women imprisoned there, which at various times included criminals, lesbians, communists, Jews, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. At times these women were political prisoners (the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in particular, were very much conscientious objectors to the war, who actually could have secured their own release by agreeing with the Nazis), victims of unethical medical experimentation, and slave labour for manufacturers. The prisoners were watched over by female guards, who operated at all times under the supervision of male SS officers.

This is a hard book to summarise, because it covers an extraordinary amount of territory, ranging from the broader political climate to letters written by individual women. There were times while reading it that I got a little lost in the details – and times when I needed to set it aside for a time while I reminded myself that humanity as a whole is not a terrible as it might seem when reading about a concentration camp – but overall If This is a Woman is both powerful and moving.

Why I Love It

In many ways, ‘love’ seems the complete wrong verb to use when describing this book. It’s not something I read because I enjoyed it, or because it was light and fun; it’s not a book I pulled off the shelf because I was looking for a happy ending. Nevertheless, this is a book that I wanted for my keeper shelf so badly that I bought a copy online before I had even finished reading my library copy.

Why?

Because it tells the story of people whose voices are often lost in the World War II narrative.

Because it reminds me that seemingly normal people can do terrible things.

Because there are times when I look at the world around me in 2018 and wonder whether there are things I’m as blind to as many people were blind to concentration camps in 1940.

Before reading this book, I had no idea that there was a concentration camp specifically for women, or that Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned as conscientious objectors to the war. I had done some reading about the Holocaust previously, triggered by a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau a few years ago when I happened to be in Poland, but Helm’s work put a lot of what I already knew into context, and fleshed it out.

I think one of the most memorable parts of this book for me is in the photograph section, where there are a series of pictures of the female guards of Ravensbruck. These are black and white photographs of smiling young women, looking like they might be my grandmother and her friends – rowing a boat, posing in a field, standing with dogs, clustered in a congenial group. Their faces don’t look brutal or vicious or cruel, which makes it particularly jarring to look at them while you’re in the process of reading about the camp they worked at. These women were employees; they were free Germans being paid to do a job. They could presumably have walked away…but they didn’t. Trying to reconcile the happy faces with the harsh reality of what the guards were involved with gave me as a reader a lot to think about.

I don’t always want to read books which make me think as much as If This is a Woman did, but there are times when it’s good to get outside your comfort zone. For me, this was one of them.

Where To Get It

If This is a Woman was available from my local library, but – as I said earlier – I actually chose to purchase this version from Book Depository before I had even finished reading it.